Arizona Republic examines evil through the eyes of a victim

The mystery of evil may be a religious concept, but it's still the focus of many anguished essays. The Arizona Republic brings the question horrifically home via an interview with a priest who was scheduled to say a requiem Mass last night for a fellow cleric.

Both men, fathers Joseph Terra and Kenneth Walker, were attacked a year ago -- in the ironically named Mother of Mercy Mission in Phoenix -- when Terra opened the door of their rectory. He was beaten suddenly and savagely with an iron rod, with the side of his face smashed and a finger mangled. His friend Walker (the subject of this tmatt column a year ago) was shot fatally.

The suspect, ex-convict Gary Michael Moran, is mentioned only briefly in this new article; he was picked up after he boasted about beating and robbing a priest, the Republic says. Nearly all the focus is on Terra: how he's healing, physically and emotionally, and how he carries on after what happened.

The brutal incident has, of course, sharpened for Terra some classic Christian themes like theodicy, forgiveness, redemption and grace. Still, the Republic says, he sat down for an interview only reluctantly, with spare sentences, carefully choosing words, "guarding his emotions." But he gradually opened up on his memories of that night and his thoughts about living the ideals he preaches.

The Republic cites Terra on forgiveness, but without the facile, high-minded way that many media treat the topic. The priest says he feels "no inclination toward revenge or anger," but for practical reasons as much as theological ones.

"Anger," he says, "can enslave you, especially if it's over something you can do nothing about. ... Is there a greater waste of time than that?"

The newspaper quotes Terra discussing what Jesus would do, without downplaying it or adding sarcastic quote marks:

"What God allows, both good and bad, is experienced to make saints of us," he says. "Jesus suffered and died on the cross, that's how God willed it."
Terra asks what Jesus must think when ordinary people complain about the hand Providence has dealt.
"He said, 'I carried this cross for you, and you find (your own struggles) objectionable?'"
For Terra, the question of forgiveness was also never even a question. As a priest, he knows he has a duty not only to follow Christ's example, but also to set an example for his parishioners.

Added to his grief and physical pain is the knowledge that it was his own gun that killed Walker. The Republic records his tears at the memory but doesn't shy away from gun-related questions -- in fact, it devotes 12 paragraphs to them.

Yet the story shuns the usual homilies about gun control or the stats about people being shot with their own weapons. It does touch on why a priest would have a gun (rough neighborhood, Terra says), guilt at owning the weapon that killed Walker (but a brother reminded him that he didn't pull the trigger), and why it happened (the jury is literally still out on that).

When Terra gets philosophical about forgiveness, one might have expected a reporter to write some pious words, then lay the pen down. But the Republic continues with the harder stuff:

"If I'm going to be talking about forgiveness from the pulpit and not practicing it, well, we used to call that hypocrisy," he says with a wry smile.
"In the Lord's Prayer, it says, 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us,'" Terra says, stressing the words "we forgive."
"That leaves us no choice but to do battle with our angry passions, but we're not doing battle ourselves — we have the power of his grace."

Terra mentions two of his own heroes: Father Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in the place of another man at Auschwitz;  and Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, who converted an imprisoned Gestapo officer. Terra confesses he isn't there yet, though -- not ready to reach out to his accused assailant.

The Republic article ends with no halo or even a ray of hope, just Terra's sad plans about what he'll say at his friend's requiem. The story is "not a valentine," says a GetReligion reader who tipped us on it.

No, it's not. It's far better. It sets two examples: a human who tightly grips his faith in the face of evil, and a newspaper that digs past the surface into matters of the soul.

Video: Father Terra, still bearing the wounds of his beating, attends a requiem Mass for Father Kenneth Walker in June 2014.

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