Saturday, January 16, 2016

St. Vitalis, Love & Human Traffficking

When a man dies, his life is revealed.
Call no man happy before his death,
for by how he ends a man is known.  (Sirach 11:27-28)

Back when I was new to the world of bloggery I published a post on St. Julia of Corsica which I called "St. Julia of Corsica - A Saint For Our Times." And, of course, she was a timely Saint. Interestingly, every time I write about another Saint, I find myself wanting to title the post the same way: "St. [Fill In The Blank], A Saint For Our Time", or " . . . A Saint For Today". It stands to reason, because sanctity, a reflection of the Eternal God, has a universal quality about it; every Saint has something that every one of us hoping to rest their heart in the Lord wants to find. At the same time, every Saint is a distinct individual, and sometimes by identifying with some of the unique aspects of a particular Saint's life, their sanctity seems a little less remote, and therefore a little more attainable, for ourselves. For just that reason we have Patron Saints and devotions to particular Saints.
It is also true that the unique stories of particular Saints illuminate specific problems or issues that are still with us today (which is another reason why we have Patron Saints). For instance, earlier this week (January 11th; the scripture quote above is from the same day's Office of Readings) we commemorated St. Vitalis of Gaza, who is venerated both in the Orthodox Churches and in the Catholic Church as the Patron Saint of both day laborers and "ladies of the night" (that is, handy-men and prostitutes: the reasons for both will be made clear below).  His hagiography [Here and Here] tells us that, around 625 A.D.,  when he was already advanced in years, he came to Alexandria in order to minister to the prostitutes.  His method, as described in the brief biography on, was as follows:

[A]fter obtaining the name and address of every prostitute in the city, he hired himself out as a day laborer, and took his wage to one of these women at the end of the day. He then would teach her about her dignity and value as a woman and that she did not deserve to be used by men as an object of their lust.

He followed the same routine every day, and he succeeded in rescuing a large number of women in this way.  Many fellow Christians misunderstood his motives, however, as he insisted that the women he helped not tell anybody about his role in their conversion, or the real reason for his nocturnal visits (presumably because these women - and their handlers - only let him in because they believed the he was a paying “customer": if they knew what he really wanted, they would have barred the door . . . or worse).  One righteously indignant young Christian, assuming the worst about Vitalis, struck him a blow to the head that resulted in his death.  Only then, freed from their promises of silence, were the women he had helped to save able to clear his name by their testimony.  
   There are a number of compelling angles to the story of St. Vitalis.  One is that yet again we have confirmation that “there is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  The scourge of prostitution is still very much with us and, as St. Vitalis understood fourteen centuries ago, it is a vicious form of exploitation that not only enslaves the body but sickens the soul.  Despite the push in some quarters today to whitewash prostitution with terms like “sex workers”, it is becoming more commonly recognized for the evil it is, and included under the broader heading of “human trafficking” (slavery, in other words).  Nonetheless, not only is prostitution still with us, but it is in fact worse, and more pervasive, than most of us realize.  I recently had the opportunity to hear a talk by Darlene Pawlik, now a pro-life and anti-trafficking activist, but formerly an exploited teen who was first “trafficked” on her 14th birthday and who remained under the control of various traffickers for the next several years . . . all right here in United States.  She was eventually saved by turning to Christ, and with the help of Christians who, like St. Vitalis, made it their mission to reach out to the victims of the “sex trade”.  There are in fact many groups today that similarly follow in the footsteps of St. Vitalis, both among Catholics and other Christians as well.


    Another point that stands out in the mission of St. Vitalis is his desire to save one soul at a time, like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable (see Luke 15:4) who leaves behind the 99 sheep to recover the one who is lost.  St. Vitalis treated each woman as an individual, and talked to her about her life, and the salvation of her own soul.  He treated each prostitute as a thinking, feeling child of God instead of an object to be used, and he was therefore able to offer real Love, as opposed to the tawdry simulacrum of love they were used to dealing in.  I can't help but think, in a way, of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who also insisted on treating each human being like, well, a human being. Secular leftists such as the late Christopher Hitchens have criticized her for being an ineffectual sentimentalist: she should have been addressing "The Real Causes" of poverty (capitalism, inequality, etc.) instead of “merely” comforting the poorest of the poor in their distress.  There is certainly a place governmental and political action, but as Mother Theresa understood, laws can't save souls, and Christ didn’t suffer and die to save us from abstractions, or to establish a perfect political or economic system: he came to save us from sin, through the great outpouring of  His Divine Love on The Cross.
    His Love is still the only thing that can save us from sin.  That’s why so many of us have come to conversion through the example of others, or because of the loving attention of a Christian who, like Christ Himself, showed an interest in us, not as a means to an end, but simply for our own good.  Not all of us are called to start seeking out prostitutes, of course; as the death of St. Vitalis shows, that was and remains a risky undertaking, for a number of reasons.  We can, however, offer material assistance to those who are willing and able to take the risks (perhaps some of the groups linked above), and offer our prayers for their safety and success, and also for the salvation of the exploited women (and men) they seek to help.  We should certainly support appropriate laws to thwart traffickers and to help their victims. Finally, we can work and pray for our own continued conversion, that we recognize the seriousness of sexual sin, and how permissiveness in this area can help create an environment in which a soul-killing evil like the “sex trade” can flourish.*

St. Vitalis of Gaza, pray for us, and for all victims of human trafficking.

* I intend to address this last point in more detail in another post in the near future.

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