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The nine saints of Charleston

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The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in D.C. is celebrating its 175th anniversary as the parish in the center of the nation’s capital. Mass has been celebrated in the current church since 1895. The cathedral has stood through war and peace, through World War I and the Depression, through Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and it has been the place where many great Americans, from President John F. Kennedy to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, have received their funeral rites.

It is a place that has seen a lot of suffering along with a lot of joy; a massive number of sinners have passed through its doors, and similar numbers of people seeking forgiveness and comfort.

On Sunday, at its first Mass of the morning, the priest, whose name I did not catch and whom I could not find on exiting, preached on the Gospel of the day. It was the fourth chapter of St. Mark, from the verses in which frightened fishermen-turned-apostles wake a sleeping Jesus because the boat in which they are sailing across the Sea of Galilee is caught in a ferocious storm (probably like the one that raked the District on Saturday night.). He was eloquent in connecting the redeeming message of the Gospel to the horrible massacre of last week.

Jesus is woken from his sleep and asks the terrified apostles why they are afraid — where is their faith? — and then calms the storm.

According to the accounts of the survivor of the slaughter at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the racist assassin who murdered nine saints Thursday night sat with them for an hour as they studied the same chapter of Mark from which Sunday’s Gospel was drawn. The text they bored in on is the parable of the sower of seeds, which runs through verse 20.

The seed that falls on good earth, Jesus told the crowd he preached to before escaping on the boat which the storm would soon engulf, returns 30-, 60- or even 100-fold. The lives of these nine martyrs have already done that and much more, as has the moving example of forgiveness their families offered on Friday. From ten thousand pulpits, their example and their families’ example are already returning a thousand-fold witness of faith.

Forgiveness is not justice, and the state must punish the killer and seek out and subdue all haters for whom race is a motivation to violence. But I have to believe from my decades of experience in Bible study that the good souls in that room had moved both forward and beyond the text they had been assigned, and that even as evil came for them they had fresh in their ears and had just read with their eyes the assurance of eternal protection from Jesus.

I did not know Pastor Pinckney, or Cynthia Hurd, or any of the other seven saints, but I do believe in the truth of the last verses of the last hymn we sang yesterday at St. Matthew’s, and I believe they believed it too:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not desert to its foes;

That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,

I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.


This column was originally posted on


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