|Faith, Culture & the Communion of Saints |
The Second Vatican Council (1962-5) so changed attitudes to Catholicism that in recent years a realignment of world Christianity, perhaps even a reintegration of its scattered elements, has begun to seem possible. This is certainly something the present Pope hopes, prays and works for. His preaching and teaching have breathed life into a new kind of Catholic Evangelicalism, concerned to root itself firmly in the Scriptural Word of God at the same time as stressing the power of the Sacraments to communicate a living, personal contact with Jesus Christ. He asks the Catholic Church to examine her conscience and confess her sins, so many of which lie close to the root of the schisms and scandals of past centuries. His encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint is a passionate plea for the reconciliation of Christians. Even the role of the Pope himself is submitted by this document to the process of dialogue in charity, for the sake of that unity in the truth for which Christ prayed before his Passion.
But there are so many misunderstandings still to be cleared up. One of these is the common idea that by venerating the saints and imploring their intercession, Catholics detract from the worship that is due to Christ alone, as the sole mediator between God and men. Now if this practice did detract from the worship of God in Christ, I am sure that Catholics would be among the first to condemn it. But what Catholics believe is something quite different: what we believe is that Christ, by dying for us and inspiring the love of the Church, puts into human beings the seed and Spirit of his own life, so that we may share with him in the process of redeeming the world and offering it in love to the Father.
When we venerate the saints, all we are doing is venerating the life and the love of Christ that is in them, that love by which they have become "sons in the Son", joining their own voices to his intercession. By venerating the saints, we are doing nothing more than taking God's promises seriously. We are allowing him to raise us up, as he came to do, into the glory of heaven. There is no honour, no perfect quality, no grace in the saints that is not first and forever in Jesus Christ. But there is also nothing that belongs to him that he is not prepared to share with those he loves - and first of all with his Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. By a law of the heavenly kingdom, this very pouring out and emptying of himself to become one of us is precisely the means by which his own kingship is won, and the way it is rendered triumphant over all the powers of evil.
It has been truly said that, if you want to know what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world at any given time, before looking at Popes and Councils you must find the saints and look at them. And what you see the saints doing in every age is precisely what that age most needs to see if it is to rediscover the fundamental message of the Gospel; if it is to repent and be "converted" or turned back to God. What we call a Christian culture is a human civilization that reveals the impact of these men and women of God: countless numbers of them, not merely the few that happen to be canonized by the Catholic Church. Nor is this impact revealed merely by their historical influence while alive. For once dead and at their Master's side in heaven they do not lose their interest in history. Their love of their fellow human beings still embroiled in time and space is purified and elevated by grace into something even more perfect. That is why the older hagiographies were to some extent justified in simplifying the tale of their earthly lives until it resembled the form of an icon, making of these saints a "golden legend", a tapestry of the Kingdom of Christ, symbolic of the influence they continue to exert, especially through those who pray for their assistance.
In modern times, we need to understand better the possibilities offered by the saints for our own personal transformation in Christ. It is no help to us when, like the city dweller lost in the countryside, asking directions from the locals, we receive the answer: "If I were going there, I wouldn't start from here." We need to recognize in the saints human beings like ourselves who took steps to get there from here, and who can give us some help along the same path. That is why hagiography went out of fashion, and why modern biographies of the saints - such as that of St Philip by Fr Paul Türks (Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, T&T Clark and Alba House, 1995) - have to be respectful but realistic, and based on meticulous scholarship.
The saints have been described as forming a "constellation" around Christ. If you subscribe to the Big Bang theory, the analogy would be with the stars formed of the gas thrown out by the primordial explosion that marked the creation of the world. Each saint shines with a light that is his or her own unique glory. The very patterns they form in the heavens tell us something of their source and destiny. Some shine more brightly than others, some rise higher above the horizon in one clime than another. Closest to Christ are those associated with his birth: Mary, of course, and her spouse Joseph, who holds in his hand the flowering staff representing the secret of new life; also St John the Baptist, Christ's Herald and patron saint of Philip’s native Florence, who appeared to him with the message that his Desert, his Indies, was to be the city of Rome. St John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple, is a latecomer to the Holy Family, but by the power of Christ's command from the Cross he takes his place as Mary's son by grace. Around the family of Jesus congregate the dazzling array of saints and apostles who met Jesus during his life. Rank on rank of saints shape the history of Christendom, giving each nation its unique Christian identity. St Francis of Assisi shows forth, in his poverty and simplicity - and in the marks upon his hands and feet - the crucified humanity of our Saviour to the Middle Ages. On the threshold of modern times, St Philip Neri also bears hidden deep within his body a mysterious seal of the love of Christ, and attracts millions by his simplicity and kindness.
Like St Francis, St Philip transformed the culture around him by the light and warmth he kindled in others. It could be justly said of him, as it was of the early Desert Fathers by John Chrysostom, that "there was no sadness in him: he made war on the Devil as though he were dancing." May his influence, which Newman brought to England, kindle in us too the dream of becoming saints.
This piece appeared in the ‘Second Spring’ section of Catholic World Report, October 1995.