Tagged: Saints

Reflecting on Four June Feasts

This column also appears in the June 13 edition of the Catholic Star Herald.

With our celebration of Pentecost last weekend, the Church kicked off an incredible four-week run of special Sundays. Here are a few reflections on each of the Feasts.

Pentecost

“Pentecost Dance,” Glenda Dietrich

During a summer vacation when I was about 12, my distinctly monolingual family accidentally ended up at a Mass in Spanish. (The local worship schedule provided by our hotel was not very detailed.) Even though I didn’t understand any of the words, I remember getting a kick out of the fact that I could tell exactly where we were in the liturgy as it moved along. The rhythms and rituals were familiar.

It was my first experience of what the word “Catholic” means: universal. Even though we speak different languages and have varying traditions, our faith unites us into one family across the world. On Pentecost, we celebrate how the Holy Spirit incorporated the first believers into a single church. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, reports that Jews who were in Jerusalem from every nation heard the disciples speaking in their own language after the Spirit descended. Differences melted away. The Spirit continues to inspire unity today, urging us to resist our human tendency to build barriers that divide people based on race, ethnicity, class, or ability.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

“Trinity,” Andrei Rublev

One of my grad school housemates lived 1000 miles from his fiancée throughout the two-year program. Finally, after the arduous, lengthy separation, they got married right before graduation, with our whole 17-person cohort in attendance. The liturgy was beautiful and the reception cathartic. My favorite memory from the party was a traditional Mexican dancing game called “the sea snake,” in which the bride and groom stood on chairs opposite each other and formed an arch with their arms. Guests linked up and danced round and round the room, passing repeatedly through the arch. I have rarely laughed so hard from pure joy. We were rejoicing in sacramental love a long time coming with the exuberance it required.

On the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, we celebrate our belief that God is loving communion among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can never perfectly imitate that love on Earth, but whenever we participate in loving relationships, the triune God is at work. Rarely have I seen evidence of God so convincing as in that sea snake dance.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)

“The Lord’s Supper,” Fritz Eichenberg

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and one of our tradition’s most important models of building kinship with those living in poverty, saw the intimate connection between her work and the Eucharist. A daily communicant, her participation in the Mass gave her a vision of how the world might be more just and harmonious – more closely in alignment with God’s dream for us. Describing a parish she loved, Day wrote that you cannot be there, “participating in the life of the Church, singing with the children, hearing the homily of the day, partaking of the bread of life, the Word made flesh, hearing the Gospel, the Word of God […] without wanting to let what you have received overflow in loving service for your fellows.”

When we celebrate the gift of the Eucharist in a special way on Corpus Christi Sunday, we are reminded that, like Dorothy Day, we are meant to “become what we eat”: nourishment for a hungry world, reaching out in love to those who are suffering.

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

“Saint Peter and Saint Paul,” Jose de Ribera

Take a wild leap of faith for a second and imagine that the Phillies somehow win the 2014 World Series. Imagine that a few days after the victory, the team rides on a float down Broad Street, in front of millions of screaming fans. Now imagine that right behind the float of Phillies is an identical float carrying the New York Mets.

Probably not a good idea. Honoring two archrivals on one day with one event doesn’t make much sense.

I wonder what Saints Peter and Paul think about their shared Feast as they look down at us from Heaven. By most accounts, they didn’t get along too well in those first days of our Church’s history. They were rivals, in a way — maybe not Phillies/Mets-level rivals, but definitely not close friends.

The most interesting evidence of the Peter/Paul rivalry is found in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, when he describes what is called the “Incident at Antioch.” Peter argued that any Gentiles coming into the Christian flock should be circumcised and follow Jewish Law before admittance. Paul disagreed, to put it mildly. He writes: “And when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Paul argued that faith in Christ was enough, and that Gentile should not have to follow the Mosaic Law to become Christians.

This was a big debate as the early Christians struggled to work out just what it meant to be part of the community. Ultimately, Paul’s position won the day, and Peter agreed to it. But the incident is evidence that saints in our tradition have disagreed with each other about theology and pastoral practice — even to each other’s faces.

As we face so many thorny theological and political issues of our own time, Peter and Paul remind us that it’s OK to grapple with big questions and even disagree from time to time, as long as we do so with respect, honesty, and a willingness to admit when we’re wrong.

Epiphany Reflection: The Art of Door-Opening

In the early 1860s,  when he was 25 years old, Alfred Bessette applied to join the Congregation of Holy Cross as a religious brother. “I am sending you a saint,” his hometown pastor wrote to the community.

After a year in the novitiate, Alfred was turned away because of poor health. But the local archbishop in Montreal intervened, and he was eventually accepted into the community and given the name Brother Andre.

He was assigned to be the doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, and also did the laundry, ran errands, and served as a sacristan.

“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years,” he said.

With a peerless devotion to St. Joseph, Brother Andre spent time with the sick and prayed with them. A master of empathy — he was known to weep along with those who visited him — he also had a great sense of humor. It’s no surprise people were drawn to him.

After some were healed, news began to spread.  Ultimately, four secretaries were hired to help answer the 80,000 letters Brother Andre received a year. “I do not cure,” he said again and again. “St. Joseph cures.”

Tension grew as his notoriety spread, and the community ultimately prevented Brother Andre from welcoming the sick at the college. So he met with them at the local tramway station instead.

Brother Andre died on January 6, 1937, at the age of 91. More than a million people traveled to Montreal to pay their respects. He was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009, and today is his feast day.

Brother Andre Bessette

Today’s traditional observance of the Epiphany is the perfect day to celebrate St. Andre and the way he welcomed thousands of visitors. On January 6, we celebrate the visit of the three Magi — foreigners who trekked across the Middle East to visit Jesus in the manger.

I often think about Epiphany from the perspective of the Magi themselves — “We Three Kings” is in the first-person plural, after all. But St. Andre’s feast day invites me to flip my perspective, and to approach the Epiphany from the Holy Family’s point of view. What would it be like to hear the Magi knocking at the door?

Exhausted from their travel and the birth in the manger, I can’t imagine that Mary and Joseph were feeling all that hospitable those first days of Jesus’ life. If I were St. Joseph, I probably would’ve chased the strange Magi away: “Who did you say you are again? From where? And you brought what for the baby? Mary and Jesus are sleeping right now. I’ll be sure to let them know you came by.”

But no, the Holy Family welcomes the Magi.

St. Joseph probably said something more like this:

“Oh, no, it’s not an inconvenience. Please, come in. I wish we had some real food to offer you. You’re quite some ways from home! And you brought gifts for Jesus? How thoughtful. The support from folks like you who we’ve never even met means so much during this confusing time!”

Hospitality is in Jesus’ DNA. It’s no surprise that few chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Brother Andre were door-opening people.

Do we throw doors open wide when we hear knocking, or do we crack them open just a few inches, with a forced smile? Or do we pretend we didn’t hear the knock at all?

When a friend asks me for a ride to the airport, is my first instinct to come up with an excuse? When my elderly neighbor’s driveway is covered in snow, do I pull on my boots and grab a shovel? When I see a homeless man on the street, asking for money, do I make eye contact or look away? When church leaders invite me to call my Congressman to urge fair immigration reform, do I pick up the phone? Or do I explain my inaction away by telling myself that those phone calls don’t really mean anything?

This Epiphany, I ask Brother Andre to intercede for me and for our Church. Help us all to be more welcoming, no matter who shows up at the door.

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.

 

Top Three Reasons to Celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul

This was the scene at Chicago’s Grant Park yesterday, when thousands of Blackhawk fans gathered to celebrate the team’s recent Stanley Cup victory over the Boston Bruins:

The team (and cup) rode a bus through the city, greeted by mobs all along the route:

Now, imagine behind that bus was one carrying the Blackhawks’ archrival team — the Detroit Red Wings.

Probably not a good idea. The best-case scenario would be lots of peaceful booing. Honoring two archrivals on one day with one event doesn’t make much sense.

I wonder what Saints Peter and Paul think about today’s Feast as they look down at us from Heaven. By most accounts, they didn’t get along too well in those first days of our Church’s history. They were rivals, in a way — maybe not Blackhawk/Red Wing-level rivals, but definitely not close friends. And now, on one of the most important feast days in our church year, we celebrate both of them at once. This is a prophetic celebration that intrigues me for three main reasons.

1. The Feast celebrates our Catholic traditions of intellectual inquiry and creative tension.

The most interesting evidence of the Peter/Paul rivalry is found in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, when he describes what is called the “Incident at Antioch.” Peter argued that any Gentiles coming into the Christian flock should be circumcised and follow Jewish Law before admittance. Paul disagreed, to put it mildly. He writes: “And when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Paul argued that faith in Christ was enough, and that Gentile should not have to follow the Mosaic Law to become Christians.

This was a big debate as the early Christians struggled to work out just what it meant to be part of the community. Ultimately, Paul’s position won the day, and Peter agreed to it. But the incident is evidence that saints in our tradition have disagreed with each other about theology and pastoral practice — even to each other’s faces.

As we face so many thorny theological and political issues of our own time, Peter and Paul remind us that it’s OK to grapple with big questions and even disagree from time to time, as long as we do so with respect,  honesty, and a willingness to admit when we’re wrong.

2. Despite a big disagreement, Peter and Paul stuck together and used their unique gifts to build up the church.

Church tradition has it that after their spat at Antioch, Peter and Paul taught together in Rome and brought Christianity there. I wonder what it would’ve been like to have taken a course co-taught by these two saints.

Paul would probably talk about the importance of keeping mission at the forefront. His would be big, inspiring, vision-oriented lessons, with not much about the particulars. Just get moving and spread the good news.

Peter would probably focus more on organization and management. As a former fisherman, he would know the importance of detail and hard, sustained work — skills that would’ve come in handy as the first leader of the church.

The key is that we needed all of those traits in the early church, and we need them all now. Today’s feast is a call for all the baptized to use our God-given gifts in the service of others. This very idea, of course, comes from Paul: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord…” Or, in the words of contemporary theologian Frederick Buechner, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

3.  Peter and Paul both teach that Christian faith must be characterized by self-giving love, especially toward the most vulnerable.

Even with their divergent approaches and skill sets, the faith that Peter and Paul describe in their epistles is marked by self-giving love, especially when it would be easier to give up.

For instance, in his first letter, Peter writes, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” That sounds a lot like the First Corinthians passage above.

And in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.

In the end, the rivalry between Peter and Paul gives way to common mission and faith. They might not have been best friends, but their shared devotion and mutual respect sparked the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.