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Lessons from Harvard

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For those who were involved in trying to stop Harvard's plans to give a venue for a reenactment of a black mass by New York's Satanic Temple, May 12 was shaping up as a day of infamy. It turned out to be a day of God's glory.

God always seeks to bring good out of evil, but normally requires our cooperation. He showed that again on Monday as the big story became the enormous Eucharistic procession through Cambridge Streets from MIT to Harvard and the overflowing crowd at St. Paul Church for a holy hour of adoration and reparation. Under the force of moral pressure, Harvard ultimately severed sponsorship of the event and the Satanic Temple was sent scrambling for an off-campus location.

The whole controversy provides us many lessons that go far beyond Harvard's walls and concern much more than one outrageous event.

The first is about the reality of the way Catholic bashing is treated in contrast to other forms of offense. Anglican scholar Philip Jenkins has called anti-Catholicism the "last acceptable prejudice," something that's true especially among elites. In a May 8 letter to Harvard President Drew Faust, I argued that Harvard would never provide a venue to a group that wanted to burn a copy of the Quran, engage in a seance of Hitler's spirit, reenact the lynching of blacks, or positively portray violence against gays or women. Why would it consider at all -- not to mention sanction -- a ceremony invoking Satan, mocking the Catholic Mass and desecrating a host?

President Faust released a strongly-worded statement on Monday, acknowledging that the organizers of the event were "well aware of the offense they are causing so many others." The black mass, she stressed, "had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church, … mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond." She added, "The decision by a student club to sponsor an enactment of this ritual is abhorrent… flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory."

Yet she decided that Harvard's "commitment to free expression" basically was a superior value and refused to rescind the group's permission to use Harvard property -- the group later decided on its own to find another venue -- declaring that the "most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent."

She opted to show solidarity with those offended by this flagrant and inflammatory disrespect by attending the holy hour of Eucharistic adoration and reparation at St. Paul's -- certainly a welcome gesture -- but neglected to exercise her office to prevent the outrage in the first place. She also failed to acknowledge the double-standard under which offenses against Catholics are tolerated. If the Satanic Temple had been planning a ritualized burning of the Torah, it's hard to imagine that she would have deemed that the proper response would be to allow it to continue and then to go to pray in atonement with Jewish students at the campus Hillel.

The second lesson is about the reality of Satanic worship and black Masses. The Harvard event was somewhat anomalous, being staged by a publicity-hounding "atheistic" Satanic group that has made news in the past for suing successfully to put a statue of Satan with children next to Ten Commandments in Oklahoma and committing homosexual sex acts over the grave of the mother of a Protestant minister they opposed. Most Satanic worship happens not by self-promoting atheists but by committed believers and servants of the devil who don't send out press releases and whose black masses always feature stolen consecrated hosts. The Eucharistic reparation done on Monday in Cambridge, in Fall River, and elsewhere, needs to be on-going and all Catholics must exercise a much greater Eucharistic vigilance, something we'll take up in next week's column.

Third, we can't forget that the devil's main guise is not to get people to dress in goat heads, facial makeup, black clothing and amulets but to get us to distrust and disobey God. His aim is not to seduce us to participate in occult rituals of Eucharistic desecration, but to get us to receive Holy Communion unworthily or not at all. While few ritually worship Satan, many unwittingly follow him.

The fourth lesson is the power of social media. The Satanic mass was stopped because social media made possible a massive and rapid response. Within three days, 80,000 people had signed petitions calling on President Faust to shut the offense down. My own letter to President Faust was quickly forwarded 3,000 times on Facebook and was able to help drive news articles and television reports. The social media kept people informed, drew them to events, and got them mobilized. Can you imagine what the response would have been if all priests, parishes and Catholics regularly took advantage of this new means of communication? Can you imagine the future possibilities in mobilizing people toward the good and against evil if the Church more effectively inspired and assisted everyone to enter the digital continent?

The last lesson is about hope for the future through the powerful apostolate of the young. So many people deserve recognition for the good outcome that happened at Harvard, but the credit must go most of all to a group of talented Harvard students and their Catholic colleagues at other Boston-area campuses who in the midst of exams organized effectively to stop this sacrilege with the weapons of prayer, reason and organization. The lessons they learned, and taught us all, will remain important as they take their newly-honed skills, battle scars, and exhilarating triumph to a vineyard far more vast than campus greens.

Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River and columnist for The Anchor, the newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River.

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