Why Saints Matter

I’ve written here, and given talks, about the meaning of the saints in our lives.  My dear friend Maria Scaperlanda wrote a lovely post yesterday on this subject.  She came up with several thoughts on the question what difference the saints make for her.  She writes

  • I need saints because they intercede with God on my behalf. Theirs is the sort of passionate pleading akin to the mother I met years ago in Austin whose son was on death row in Huntsville. When the Governor of Texas refused to see her in person to hear her plead for a stay of his execution, the determined mother set up a tent to live in across the street from the Governor’s mansion, and she invited the local press, the local bishop, and anyone else who would listen and join her in prayer and in peaceful demonstration.  Who doesn’t need this sort of passionate intercession?
  • I need saints because they connect me to others—across time and geography—and that constantly reminds me that my faith is little “c” catholic. And I am not alone in my quest and desire to live for God. No matter how much I screw that up, there are saints whose lives are worthy of being a spicy HBO movie—and they get just how hard that desire can be.
  • I need saints like Archbishop Romero and Father Stanley Rother (whose 52nd anniversary of ordination was this week!) because being holy –and at the very least, learning to live holy lives –is possible for everyone, no matter how ordinary. Romero and Rother, who died a year apart, became martyrs for the faith. But they did so by desiring to respond in and through their faithto every person, every circumstance, every moment in their ordinary lives.

You can read the entirety of Maria’s post here.  And I encourage you to follow her blog, Day by Day.  I always find something there that challenges me, makes me think, and sometimes just makes me smile.

Saints and saints

Today I gave a Mid-Day Reflection at UST Law School titled Saints and saints. I picked the topic of the saints for this weeks program because November was the feast of All Saints in the Catholic Church. The capital and small “s” in the title reflects that our models and sources of inspiration can include both individuals formally canonized by the Church and people not so recognized but who have lived lives of great holiness.

I began my talk by sharing on what it means to call someone a saint and, more importantly why I think reflecting on the saints is beneficial for us. I then shared about some of the saints (capital and small “s”) who have particular significance for me.

After my talk, I gave the participants time for individual reflection, asking them to call to mind particular saints that have meaning to them and consider what it is about those persons that inspire them. Following the silent reflection period, people shared some of the saints that inspired them – the range of which itself was quite inspiring.

I ended by encouraging the participants to spend some more time this week reflecting on the individuals they identified, asking themselves what their growing edges are. What are their challenges in developing some of the virtues they admire in their saints.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 20:08.) A copy of the reflection handout I distributed, which is mentioned near the end of the podcast, is here.

Saint John Chrysostom

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John Chrysostom, an eloquent preacher of the fourth century. (Despite the quality of his sermons, I’m guessing the length would annoy many today – they sometimes lasted two hours!)

St. John Chrysostom invites us to examine not just what we do, but the attitude with which we do it. Regarding helping others, he said:

Helping a person in need is good in itself. But the degree of goodness is hugely affected by the attitude with which it is done. If you show resentment because you are helping the person out of a reluctant sense of duty, then the person may recieve your help but may feel awkward and embarrassed. This is because he will feel beholden to you. If,on the other hand, you help the person in a spirit of joy, then the help will be received joyfully. The person will feel neither demeaned nor humiliated by your help, but rather will feel glad to have caused you pleasure by receiving your help. And joy is the appropriate attitude with which to help others because acts of generosity are a source of blessing to the giver as well as the receiver.

Not a whole lot to add to that one; res ipsa loquitur as the lawyers among us would say.

Chrysostom also challenges us to think about how we deal with those who have done harm to us and others, saying

When your enemy falls into your hands, do not consider how you can pay him back and let him feel the sharp edge of your tongue before sending him packing; consider rather how you can heal him and restore him to a better frame of mind.

What an enormous difference that would make on a social and individual level! To have an aim of restoration and healing rather than punishment and shame. I’m sure we can all think of situations where we’ve had the less noble aim in mind. And I’m guessing we could imagine ways in which acting in accordance with John Chrysostom’s advice might have made a difference.

The Women Who Came Before Us

This morning I gave a women’s retreat day at Church of Christ the King on the theme The Women Who Came Before Us. As I said at the outset of our time together, although my visualization of the Communion of the Saints includes many men, I think there is value to women in focusing on some of he women in our history.

Although we read about them far too infrequently, women played significant roles in the narratives of both the Old and the New Testament. Women have been among the greatest mystics of the Catholic Church and included in the ranks of those who have been recognized by the Church (and some who have not been formally recognized) are some amazing women – strong, courageous women of faith.

I divided our time together into two segments: Women of the Bible and Latter-Day Women Saints (which term for me includes women who have not been formally canonized as well as those who have). During the first segment, I spoke about Miriam, Ruth, Hannah, Martha Phoebe and Mary (mother of Jesus). In the second segment, I spoke about Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Sr. Thea Bowman and Elizabeth Ann Seton. After each talk, the women spent time in individual prayer and reflection, following which we had both small group and large group discussion.

Directing women’s retreats is always an incredible privilege for me, whether it is long weekends like last weekend or a half-day like today. I think we all benefitted by our time and sharing together.

You can access a recording of my reflection on Women of the Bible here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 37:38.) The recording of my talk on Latter-Day Women Saints is here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 29:39.) A copy of the handout I distributed for prayer on Women of the Bible is here and the handout for praying with Latter-Day Women Saints is here.

Women of the Bible:

Latter Day Women Saints:

A Life Worth Emulating

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the Carondelet Catholic School Mass for the Feast of All the Saints at Church of Christ the King. Although Fr. Dale Korogi aimed his homily at the students, his message was a meaningful one for all of us.

He started by asking why the students were Catholic. He suggested that a common answer to the question is, my parents are Catholic and raised me that way. He is Catholic, he said, because his parents, and his grandparents, and great-grandparents, and the parents of his great-grandparents, etc. were all Catholic. He didn’t mean simply Catholic in name, but people whose Catholic faith inspired the live they lived.

One does not become or remain Catholic or Christian, he suggested, because of an idea, but because of those human beings who came before us who show us what it means to live lives of generosity, love, and faith.

All Saints Day offers an opportunity to celebrate all of those people.

But the idea of the celebration is not that we sit back and simply admire their qualities. Instead, the saints are meant to inspire us. The hope, as Fr. Dale suggested, is that others may look at us and see and example of a life well lived, a life worth emulating.

Essential Qualities of Sainthood

Today the Catholic Church celebrates All Saints Day, a feast that was instituted to honor all the saints, known and unknown.

People have different understandings of what it means to call someone a saint. In his recent canonization of seven new Saints, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of some essential characteristics of sainthood, saying that each of the seven was evangelistic, each was holy, and each pursued lives of radical discipleship with a sensitivity to culture.

Evangelization. Holiness. Radical discipleship. It is what we are each called to as Christians. But our speech and actions do not always embody those qualities.

When I think of the saints who stand front and center when I visualize the Communion of Saints – people like John the Baptist, St. Vincent dePaul, St. Francis – I see the qualities Pope Benedict identified in the newly recognized saints. These women and men who came before us inspire me. They encourage me. They assure me by their lives and deaths that it is possible to live the life we were called to live.

On this All Saints Day, spend some time reflecting on the lives of the saints that have special meaning for you. What is it about them that keeps them close to their heart? What lesson do they teach about your own life?

Favorite Saints

As regular (or even occasional) readers of this blog know, the saints occupy an important places in my life. The communion of saints is an important image for me – a reminder that we are never alone in our spiritual journay – and I’ve written here about many individual saints who have been friends, models and companions on my spiritual journey.

Because of my own relationship with some powerful individuals we call saints, I am always interested in other people’s accounts of saints that matter to them. I’ve mentioned before Fr. Jim Martin’s My Life with the Saints as one such account well worth reading. Another that I just finished reading is The Saints in My Life, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. Another really good read.

Fr. Groeschel and I share a number of favorites – more than half of the nineteen he incldues in his book would make my “top twenty” list, including Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). But he also introduced me to one saint I knew nothing at all about (Catherine of Genoa) and even with respect to a couple I knew a bit about (e.g. the basic story of St. Catherine Laboure and the Miraculous Medal), he provided some addition details.

Each chapter includes a brief description of the life of the saint in question, explanation of the meaning of the life of the saint for Fr. Groeschel (why they are friends, how they have influenced him, etc.) and, for most some prayer or other piece of writing of that saint.

The descriptions of the saints themselves are very reporter-like. These aren’t stories of the saints, but a factual account of their lives. While interesting and a source of information, more compelling for me were the parts of each chapters that addressed the significance of the saint to the Fr. Groeschel. These were much more personal and gave a more inspiring picture of the saint than the more biographical portions of the chapter did. So together, they make for really good reading.

The book also contains some wonderful reminders and truths about the lives of the saints and how we relate to them. First, to expand a comment Fr. Groeschel makes about Francis: the world often tries to tame saints. In Francis’ case, the tendency is to “reduce him ot the patron saint of birdbaths, to see him as merely a great animal lover or (more fashionably) as an ecologist” and to ignore exactly how radical he was. I think we do that with others as well – we take the nice little pieces of the lives of saints as something to emulate, often at the cost of ignoring their broader message, which often is a much more radical emptying of self for God and others.

Second, he reminds us that shapes come in all saints and sizes and from all walks of life – lay as well as ordained, women as well as male, simple as well as educated, rich as well as poor. God takes us all as he finds us and can work with that, whatever it is. The related point is that our own measure of success in our spiritual lives is not: were we as much Francis as Francis, or as much Thomas More as Thomas More. It is, rather, how did we use the particular gifts God gave us.

Third, with respect to almost all of the saints, Fr. Groeschel talks about some turning point in the life of the saints. Again, for me it is an important reminder that those we call saints weren’t born sinless or perfect. They had points of conversion, incidents or events or circumstances that helped them turn more deeply toward God. And we do as well.

All in all, a nice read that I think many will enjoy.

Doctors of the Church

I just finished reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Doctors of the Church, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. I have generally benefitted from the writing of Pope Benedict (particularly his Jesus of Nazareth and his contributions to Mary, Church at the Source) and this book was no exception.

Drawn from the Pope’s weekly general audiences, the chapters of the book present catecheses on thirty-two of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church, that is, individuals who have been recognized over the years for both their “holiness of life and profundity in learning.” For me, some of those selected were people I had no familiarity with, some were names I recognized but knew little or nothing about, and others were old friends. Thus, in reading I learned a lot about some of the Doctors and some new things about others. Even those chapters that gave me no new “information” about the Doctor (like the chapters on Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena) were good to read – like spending time with a good friend and being reminded of what I love about them.

What Pope Benedict does so effectively in these catecheses is to not just present a biography of people who are important in Church history, but to convey the core of each of their spiritualities. There are obviously some similarities in them – a deep personal relationship with Christ, a recognition of the importance of Scripture, a recognition of God’s love, and a real and consistent prayer life, which itself is an important lesson for us.

Although there are many things in the chapters on Doctors like Lawrence of Brindisi, Peter Canisius and Isidore of Seville I’m tempted to share, because we are in Advent and because I agree with Pope Benedict’s assessment of the beauty of the images presented, I’ll just share a snippet of the writing of the second Doctor included in the book. Here is an excerpt from St Ephrem’s hymn On the Nativity of Christ that you might like to pray with:

The Lord entered her and became a servant; the Word entered her, and became silent within her; thunder entered her and his voice was still; the Shepherd of all entered here; he became a Lamb in her, and came forth blessing.

The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came our poor: The High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form…

He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth form her the Clother of all things [in beauty].

Lest anyone think Pope Benedict’s writings are only for those with a high degree of theological sophistication (although certainly such people will also benefit from reading his book), this book, as others of his, is written in a very accessible prose style, making it a worthwhile read for all Christians.

Reflecting on the Saints

Yesterday, the day on which the Catholic Church celebrated All Saints Day, I gave a mid-day reflection on the Saints. The focus of my talk was on what it means to call someone a saint and what the saints mean in our lives.

My talk addressed both “capital S” and “small S” saints – i.e., those who have been canonized by the Catholic Church and those holy men and women who have gone before us who, although not recognized as Saints, give allow us a “catch a glimpse of what God is like – and of what we are called to be” (in the words of Kenneth Woodward). I talked about saints as models of sin transcended, as helping us to understand how God works in the lives of individuals and as companions on our jouney, who have experienced many of the struggles we face.

I also talked about some of those who stand front and center in my visualization of the communion of the saints, sharing a little of my relationship with Francis of Assisi and Vincent de Paul.

After my talk, I invited the participants to take some time in silent reflection, calling to mind particular saints who have meaning to them, after which they shared with the group what those individuals meant to them.

You can stream the podcast of the talk I gave today from the icon below or can download it here. (The podcast runs for 20:42). You can find a copy of the prayer material I distributed for participants to pray with here.

I Believe in The Holy Catholic Church….

Yesterday was the final gathering at the University of St. Thomas of the Fall reflection series on the creed I offered at UST, at St. John’s Episcopal and at St. Hubert this fall. Our focus during this final session was the final part of the Apostles’ Creed, in which we express our belief in “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

We began the session (as we usually do) by giving the participants time to share in small groups a little bit about their prayer experience during this past week. After that, I spoke about each of the elements of this portion of the Creed, which Pope Benedict (while still Cardinal Ratzinger) called developments of our profession of belief in the Holy Spirit.

Following my talk, we had a terrific discussion that covered several elements of these lines. We spent a lot of time on the issue of forgiveness – and our difficulty both accepting God’s forgiveness and being able to forgive others. After our discussion, I made some comments to draw the series to a close.

You can stream the podcast of the talk I gave yesterday below. You can also download the talk here. (The talk runs for 17:04).