V sign for Victory: The Hunger Games and the Saints

KatnissMockingjayThe newest and final film of the Hunger Games trilogy recently came out in theaters. Based on the books by Suzanne Collins, which have been worldwide bestsellers, the films follow the character Katniss Everdeen. What is interesting is that in the depiction of the life of Katniss, telling the heroic story of a young woman who risks her life to save her little sister and becomes a symbol of hope for an oppressed people, we have significant parallels to the lives of modern saints.

The connection between aspects of the Hunger Games and the lives of saints have notStMaxHungerGames been missed. A popular meme of St. Maximilian Kolbe has been out for a while, making a cultural allusion to the Hunger Games. In it St. Maximilian is depicted with the wording: “Hunger Games? Volunteered as a Tribute in Real Life.”

A “tribute” is a reference to what, in the Hunger Games, participants are called who are chosen, by an oppressive state (“the Capitol”) to partake in a televised death match called the “Hunger Games.” When Katniss’ little sister is chosen as a tribute against her will, a drafting that would in all probability lead to her death, Katniss steps in to take her place. This selfless act is reminiscent of how Maximilian Kolbe stepped in and volunteered to take the place of another Polish prisoner in Auschwitz who was going to be executed. Hence the poetic quality of the popular meme: “Volunteered as a Tribute in Real Life.”

Surviving the Hunger Games, and challenging the status quo of the Capitol that enforces the Games, Katniss becomes a symbol for resistance, revolution, and hope, fighting for a socially and militarily oppressed people: in essence, she becomes the symbol of a movement.

FrJerzyBlessed Jerzy Popieluszko was a young Polish priest who became a symbol of resistance and hope for oppressed Poles during the reign of state-sanctioned Communism in Poland. He became a chaplain for the Solidarity Movement in Poland, a figure-head fighting for the rights of workers and leading a spiritual renewal against an atheistic government. Fr. Jerzy’s monthly Masses for the Fatherland were attended by tens of thousands of people. At the Masses people would pronounce a sign of solidarity by lifting up a hand and using two fingers (the index and the middle finger) to make the sign of a “V.” The “V” was a symbol for victory.

VforVictorySo often they did this in Fr. Jerzy’s presence, raise up a “V” with their fingers, that this symbol of hope became a threat to the Communist administration. As one blog dedicated to Fr. Jerzy explained, the “V” sign moved then-Polish Prime Minister, the Communist leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski, to angrily mention it on the floor of the Polish Parliament, explaining: “Today there are still hands with fingers that are spread in the form of a letter. Not even one Polish word begins with that letter.  Because of (this letter) it won’t get better in Poland, it can only get worse.” These words speak to the reality of what fear and unease this symbol inspired in the Communist administration.

threefingerSaluteLike Fr. Jerzy, in the Hunger Games Katniss is also often acknowledged through a finger sign, the three finger salute. As one site explains, the “sign is made by pressing your three middle fingers of your left hand to your lips and then hold them out to the person, or people, that you want to show respect to.” In the Hunger Games films it is evident that the three-finger salute, originating as a humble recognition of respect from Katniss’ home district, becomes so much more once Katniss becomes such a powerful symbol for the people: the three-finger salute becoming a sign that is threatening to the oppressive State, the Capitol, while inspiring the hopes of the people: becoming a deeper, political symbol.

The two-finger salute signifying the “V” that was pervasively present at Fr. Jerzy’s Masses, and throughout Poland where movements of resistance arose to an oppressive state, has a fascinating history.

Blogger Michael Masson explains: “The V sign was created by Victor de Laveleye, a Belgium politician who directed the French-speaking broadcasts of the BBC during World War II.  He chose V because it was the first letter for the French victoire meaning “victory” and the Dutch vrijheid meaning “freedom”.  De Laveleye said, ‘the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.’”

Writer Anita Crane traces the V sign even to an earlier history: “Indeed, the V stood for ‘In hoc signo vinces’ – ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ This is the message that Constantine and his troops saw written in the sky with a sign of the cross on their way to the Battle of Saxa Rubra in 312 A.D. The troops of tyrant Maxentius, brutal killer of Christians, outnumbered Constantine’s army by at least two-to-one. After the sign, Constantine put the cross on his shield and won the battle, which, among other things, led to outlawing slavery and the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.”

Fr. Jerzy, who like his Polish brother Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, died as a martyr, being kidnapped and brutally murdered by the Communist secret police on October 19, 1984. However, he became a symbol of hope and the courageous work of his life, being a spiritual father, helper, strategist, to the Solidarity Movement in Poland and countless oppressed workers, culminated in the destruction of the Communist regime in Poland and, through a domino effect, the rest of Eastern Europe a few years later.

To see an extraordinary documentary on his life see “Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth.”

It is important to note that in this post I am not identifying the Hunger Games character Katniss Everdeen as a saint. She is a complex character who makes important—at times, morally questionable—decisions but I am highlighting how many aspects of the Hunger Games series, which make it a fascinating trilogy filled with heroic witness, sacrificial self-giving, and symbols of hope, are prominently present in the heroic lives of modern saints.

A Great Man of God: Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko

Here are two film trailers about the 20th century martyr, the Polish priest Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, who is a blessed today on the verge of canonization. He is someone who I have recently felt spiritually close to, sensing the intercession of this man of God in my life. Fr Jerzy was an inspirational young priest, a brother of the people, who was viciously murdered by agents of the Communist secret police in Poland in 1984 for standing up for truth when lives all around him were being oppressed. Fr. Jerzy, beloved servant of God, pray for us!

Congratulations, Sr. Alicia!!

I was ecstatic to see this story earlier this week in the Chicago Tribune: about Sr. Alicia Torres competing and winning on Food Network’s reality TV cooking show “Chopped.” Sr. Alicia won $10,000 for Our Lady of the Angels Mission Church and is going to use that money to provide home-cooked meals for poverty-stricken neighbors in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, one of the poorest areas in the city.

I met Sr. Alicia years ago before religious life (for either of us). She was an undergraduate at Loyola while I was at De Paul, both Chicago colleges, and we met through the pro-life movement: Sr. Alicia worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago coordinating trips to Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life. We have kept in touch, exchanging correspondences when I was a novice last year, and I was overjoyed to see how much she is doing for the Lord with both her evangelization in the media and her working with the poor.

To learn more about Sr. Alicia’s Franciscan community, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, who work with the poor in the city and have a deep, contemplative devotion to the Eucharist, click here. Also, check out the great video above that Sr. Alicia did for Imagine Sisters, sharing her vocation story.

John Milbank on the Influence of Russian Theological Thought

Here is a video of British theologian John Milbank lecturing in Moscow. So often, when we hear of Russia today, we do so in a very antagonistic manner, the depiction being that they are our political enemies here in the West. However, there has been a much more fruitful and constructive dialogue among Western and Eastern theologians who have sought to rediscover the richness of the Russian intellectual tradition, both in theology and philosophy, as a response to the emptiness of modern secularism.

John Milbank, one of my favorite theologians, is the founder of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, a 20th-century theological movement that restores a premodern theology, using Plato, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, while having the intellectual boldness and integrity to engage postmodern thought; it is a theological movement which hopes to re-frame and reclaim the world, and things which we have deemed “secular” – politics, sexuality, beauty, culture, art – from a theological perspective, knowing that everything has its origins in God. In this regard, many great thinkers in Russian theology and philosophy have much to offer as well: hence, Milbank’s decision to lecture in Moscow to further the dialogue.

Chiara Petrillo: The Story of a Beautiful Soul

Dear Friends, peace and abundant blessings!! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Seminary has kept me busy with five classes, papers, midterms, and my first attempts at studying Latin. Going forward with faith. Please always keep me and my fellow seminarians in prayer.

I recently came across a new book published by Sophia Institute Press, Chiara CorbellaChiara Pertillo: Witness to Joy. I was very excited and moved to see Chiara’s image on the cover and to see that her story has been made into a book. It was a few years ago, before entering religious life, that I took a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in hopes of discerning my future. On that pilgrimage, during the Youth Festival, a film was shown of Chiara’s story. My mother was with me, tearing up, as many were: witnessing the account of this beautiful, 28-year-old woman in love with God, who received cancer while pregnant with her child. Doctors proposed cancer treatment that would risk the life of the baby. Chiara had no interest in that, refusing the treatment as an act of sacrificial love for her child.

She gave birth to a healthy boy, Francesco, his parents naming him after St. Francis of Assisi. Shortly thereafter, Chiara died at the age of 28 from the cancer that pervaded her body, leaving her husband and son. She dealt with the disease, and the conflict that her life was experiencing, with great surrender to God, facing death with a heroic and serene optimism that only a deep relationship with the Almighty can foster. Here is a short but powerful excerpt from the book’s Web site (from Sophia Institute Press):

“Chiara Petrillo was seated in a wheel chair looking lovingly toward Jesus in the tabernacle. Her husband, Enrico, found the courage to ask her a question that he had been holding back. Thinking of Jesus’s phrase, “my yoke is sweet and my burden is light,” he asked: “Is this yoke, this cross, really sweet, as Jesus said?”

A smile came across Chiara’s face. She turned to her husband and said in a weak voice: “Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.”

At 28 years old, Chiara passed away, her body ravaged by cancer. The emotional, physical, and spiritual trials of this young Italian mother are not uncommon. It was her joyful and loving response to each that led one cardinal to call her ‘a saint for our times’.”