Why I Got Arrested Saying the Rosary

Commentary
By John Gehring 3-01-2018
Photo courtesy John Gehring

The Catholic sisters at Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Maryland had me praying the rosary plenty of times as a kid, but I’ve never held one as a police officer cuffed my hands behind my back. I like to think the nuns who taught me that faith is about moving your feet, not just your mouth, are smiling with a subversive grin.

Earlier this week, I participated in civil disobedience for the first time. Forty Catholic sisters, priests, and other lay Catholic advocates were arrested in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in solidarity with young undocumented “Dreamers.” These immigrants, brought to this country as children, are living in fear of deportation after the Trump administration ended an Obama-era program that offered them protection. Congress now has to find a solution. About a third of all House members, including Speaker Paul Ryan, and a quarter of senators are Catholic. More than a 100 Catholics, including Dreamers, showed up for a rally and press conference outside the Senate building, urging lawmakers to act.

One of the most significant things about the gathering, organized by Faith in Public Life and PICO National Network, was the presence of Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., who not only spoke at the press conference, but followed the procession inside the Senate office building. As congressional staff watched from the balcony above and television cameras swarmed, the bishop stood in the center of the rotunda and blessed those of us about to get arrested.

“We stand with the Dreamers. We are one with the Dreamers,” the bishop said, extending his hand over the group. “And now I ask God’s blessing upon those who are acting in civil disobedience, part of a longstanding tradition of not supporting unjust laws.”

Standing in a circle, we prayed the rosary in unison. Capitol Police warned us to disperse three times. We continued our Hail Marys as police slowly led us out.

Catholic bishops have been consistently strong in challenging the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants, but bishops are often skittish about showing up at demonstrations, even those infused by prayer and moral messages. The fact that a Catholic bishop blessed those risking arrest is an important step. I hope others in the hierarchy follow as a way of demonstrating what Pope Francis calls accompaniment. A “church in the streets,” as Francis views it, takes risks. Disrupting the complacency and comfort of an unacceptable status quo means doing more than issuing well-crafted statements or even giving a powerful homily. As always, Catholic leaders could learn from and follow women in the church. Forty Catholics were arrested, and of those the women outnumbered the men three to one. Many were nuns, some in their 70s and 80s, who had been arrested many times. There were also young sisters participating in civil disobedience for the first time.

A skeptic might ask what we accomplished by our prayerful protest. Congress is a dysfunctional institution. Today’s Republican Party is filled with nativists and anti-government zealots who seem most inspired by handing out tax breaks to rich people. It’s easy to be cynical and lose hope. In fact, that is exactly what the powerful want from you. Easier, then, for the rules to be rigged by those who write the checks and those politicians in their pockets. But history teaches us that it’s the protesters, the organizers, the preachers, and other holy rabble on the outside who refuse to be silent that end up creating change on the inside. As Pope Francis put it during a meeting of “popular movements,” the future of humanity “does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It’s fundamentally in the hands of people and their ability to organize.”

To make a confession (it is Lent), I haven’t said the rosary in a few years, but praying it in communion with so many Catholics putting their faith into action reminded me of a section from Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat.

He has shown the strength of his arm.
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent away empty.

Faith is radical and subversive. When we confront injustice and follow the gospel, we disrupt the usual order of business. Prayer alone isn't enough. But prayer with action inspires hope and creates change. Christians should never underestimate that power.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.

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