Nelson Mandela and What It Means to Be a Saint

As news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke Thursday evening, I was reminded of what a blessing the Internet can be. Striking remembrances, photo reels, quote collections, and archival videos were everywhere.

While surfing around, I saw this photo of Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II a friend posted on Twitter, with the hashtag “saints.”

Just a minute later, I saw a headline that caught my attention, on the website Slate: “Nelson Mandela Was No Saint. It Was His Flaws That Made Him Great.”

This obituary was written by Adam Roberts, the former South Africa correspondent for the Economist magazine, who knew Nelson Mandela, his family, and other South African leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Roberts is a good writer and he provides an important inside view of Mandela that is worth reading.

His main point is that Mandela’s shortcomings contributed to his ultimate success: “His achievements are the greater because he himself admitted to errors, at times bungling policy. Those failings matter,” Roberts writes. “He was more likely to learn from mistakes than the haughty sort of leader who refuses to accept he made any. Others should pay as much attention to his slip-ups as to his achievements.”

All good. The problem comes when Roberts argues that Mandela’s humanness means he wasn’t a saint. We shouldn’t remember him as anything “so dry, hollow, and uninteresting,” Roberts writes. “He may be compared to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, as a great moral figure of our times. But the myth should not overpower the reality of a humane, richly complicated, and passionate individual.”

In the obituary’s last paragraph, Roberts writes that Mandela would joke that when he died and got to heaven, the first thing he would do would sign up for membership at the local branch of the African National Congress. “It was his way of saying that he was a political and pragmatic man: not a saint,” Roberts writes. “Remember him as a warm, powerful, and humane figure. Not an unearthly one.”

So by Roberts’ reasoning, Mandela was not a saint because he was flawed, warm, powerful, humane, political, pragmatic, passionate, complicated, learned from his mistakes, and because he was not unearthly, dry, hollow, haughty, or uninteresting.

Sure sounds exactly like a saint to me.

Rev. James Martin, SJ, the Jesuit writer, has a great perspective on what it means to be a saint. “When you read the complete stories of the lives of these saints, and shift your focus from the gruesome details of their martyrdoms and their more extreme ascetical practices, you might meet people who can teach you about being who you are, ” he writes. “For each saint lived out his or her call to follow God in an individual way, tailored to their own personalities… if you dig beneath the surface of their often-puzzling lives, you could find something that you might want to emulate: generosity, charity and love.”

The lives of the saints, Fr. Martin writes, are far more complex, interesting, and flawed than common stereotypes. He writes about the saints’ struggles with family, church,  and physical maladies. St. Paul killed Christians. St. Augustine partied — a lot. The 12 apostles betrayed, denied, and bickered. Mother Teresa, who Roberts lifts up as an example of a two-dimensional figure of moral perfection, struggled with belief for much of her life. Their challenges did not stop them from doing incredible, holy things, and living lives of generosity, charity, and love. The humanness of the saints makes them relatable and accessible for us.

So while Nelson Mandela, a Methodist, probably will never be a canonized Saint with a capital S, his commitments to justice, equality, and reconciliation — and his perseverance despite shortcomings and flaws — make him a model for us worth emulating on our faith journeys. His life well lived makes him a saint.

 

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