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Faith in Fiction View Comments
By Mitch Finley

FOR RON HANSEN, being Catholic and writing fiction go hand in hand. “Catholicism continually asks the big theological questions about good and evil and forces believers to accept a confessional rather than therapeutic role—that is, I have to focus on the things I’ve done or failed to do, not brood over or nurse the things that have been done to me,” he says.

“Catholicism encourages frankness about our sin-ridden natures rather than the sentimentality that flinches from descriptions of wrongs and ugliness. Flannery O’Connor said the Catholic writer should be ‘hotly in pursuit of the real.’ And that’s exactly what the finest fiction endeavors to do.”

Many of Hansen’s novels carry a Catholic theme: Mariette in Ecstasy(HarperCollins, 1991) is the story of a young woman who enters a monastery and becomes a mystic in ways that many readers—Catholics and others—find mind-blowing.

In a book review for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani described the book as “a slim, luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy. ... Though considerable space is devoted in this novel to Roman Catholic beliefs and liturgy, one need hardly be familiar with that church’s teachings to be moved and amazed by this fable. With Mariette in Ecstasy, Mr. Hansen has written an astonishingly deft and provocative novel.”

Hansen brings a deeply rooted Catholic imagination to his work, finding holy in the ordinary, sacred in the secular. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford(Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), which parallels the theme of sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, was such a well-told story that it became a widely praised movie, starring Brad Pitt, in 2007. Having written both the novel and the screenplay, Hansen was invited to visit the film set in Canada a few times, where he met director Andrew Dominik and some of the actors, including Pitt, whom he advised on the character of Jesse James.

“I have a photo of the two of us together,” Hansen remarks wryly, “but I had to promise not to let it be published anywhere.”

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Mitch Finley lives and writes in Spokane, Wash., with his spouse of 37 years, Kathy, a university teacher, licensed counselor and author. Together, they are the parents of three grown sons. He is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes.

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Junipero Serra: In 1776, when the American Revolution was beginning in the east, another part of the future United States was being born in California. That year a gray-robed Franciscan founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, now famous for its annually returning swallows. San Juan was the seventh of nine missions established under the direction of this indomitable Spaniard. 
<p>Born on Spain’s island of Mallorca, Serra entered the Franciscan Order, taking the name of St. Francis’ childlike companion, Brother Juniper. Until he was 35, he spent most of his time in the classroom—first as a student of theology and then as a professor. He also became famous for his preaching. Suddenly he gave it all up and followed the yearning that had begun years before when he heard about the missionary work of St. Francis Solanus in South America. Junipero’s desire was to convert native peoples in the New World. </p><p>Arriving by ship at Vera Cruz, Mexico, he and a companion walked the 250 miles to Mexico City. On the way Junipero’s left leg became infected by an insect bite and would remain a cross—sometimes life-threatening—for the rest of his life. For 18 years he worked in central Mexico and in the Baja Peninsula. He became president of the missions there. </p><p>Enter politics: the threat of a Russian invasion south from Alaska. Charles III of Spain ordered an expedition to beat Russia to the territory. So the last two <i>conquistadors</i>—one military, one spiritual—began their quest. José de Galvez persuaded Junipero to set out with him for present-day Monterey, California. The first mission founded after the 900-mile journey north was San Diego (1769). That year a shortage of food almost canceled the expedition. Vowing to stay with the local people, Junipero and another friar began a novena in preparation for St. Joseph’s day, March 19, the scheduled day of departure. On that day, the relief ship arrived. </p><p>Other missions followed: Monterey/Carmel (1770); San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luís Obispo (1772); San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782). Twelve more were founded after Serra’s death. </p><p>Junipero made the long trip to Mexico City to settle great differences with the military commander. He arrived at the point of death. The outcome was substantially what Junipero sought: the famous “Regulation” protecting the Indians and the missions. It was the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a “Bill of Rights” for Native Americans. </p><p>Because the Native Americans were living a nonhuman life from the Spanish point of view, the friars were made their legal guardians. The Native Americans were kept at the mission after Baptism lest they be corrupted in their former haunts—a move that has brought cries of “injustice” from some moderns. </p><p>Junipero’s missionary life was a long battle with cold and hunger, with unsympathetic military commanders and even with danger of death from non-Christian native peoples. Through it all his unquenchable zeal was fed by prayer each night, often from midnight till dawn. He baptized over 6,000 people and confirmed 5,000. His travels would have circled the globe. He brought the Native Americans not only the gift of faith but also a decent standard of living. He won their love, as witnessed especially by their grief at his death. He is buried at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, Carmel, and was beatified in 1988. Pope Francis canonized him in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2015.</p> American Catholic Blog Hope and faith can outshine the darkness of evil. However dense the darkness may appear, our hope for the triumph of the light is stronger still. Though violence continues to stain us with blood, the shadows of death can be dissipated with one act of light.

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