By Fr Martin Sirju
“What the world needs more than ever is saints.”
So said Fr Henry Charles many years ago. The pandemic has provided us with many.
We think of saints as these special people to whom we pray, officially canonised by the Church, who are closer to God in Heaven than we can possibly be on Earth. They intercede for us before the throne of the Lamb and many, if not all, of them are associated with special propitiations—St Anthony for lost items, St Martin de Porres for the sick, St Luke for doctors, St Ann for husbands, St Therese for missionaries, St Jude for hopeless cases—which would include most of us—and many more.
This understanding needs some tweaking. In the New Testament, saints are the body of the Christian faithful: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1).
Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document on the Church, notes: “All the faithful, scattered though they be throughout the world, are in communion with each other in the Holy Spirit” (13).
This communion of the faithful in faith and good works, in holiness and justice, is what is primarily “the communion of saints”.
Saints are not extrinsic to this: they emerge out of it, like our beloved Archbishop Pantin emerged out of the holiness of the body of God’s faithful people. Most saints are not known to us, only to God; the adventure in holiness is private and self-effacing. Saints do not only live in Heaven; they live on Earth, amongst us and unknown to us.
In his book, Ongoing Conversion: From Good to Better, Fr Charles observes: “There is a conversion from good to better that takes more time and is more arduous than the conversion from bad to good.”
This succinctly explains why many of us are not saints. We make the journey from bad to good, but we too often give up or end prematurely the journey from good to better.
When it comes to saintliness, the heart is of paramount importance, interiority, and purity. Jesus was not their most favourite person when He told the chief priests and elders “tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt 21:31).
Tax collectors and prostitutes were very observable yet what people saw was not what God got. Jesus saw something about their heart, their longing, their tears of broken promises. Was Jesus trying to say some of them were saints? If so, it tells you how complicated the concept of sanctity is.
The pandemic has brought me to tears on a few occasions. To paraphrase a quotation of Thomas Aquinas: it makes all I have done as a priest in 29 years seem like so much straw!
Doctors have surprised many. Many people look upon doctors as money-lovers, modern-day tax collectors, who exact high fees from desperate people. Sweeping generalisations are sinful.
Today, amidst the pandemic, all over the world, doctors are laying down their lives for their patients, dying side by side with nurses and other health care workers. These frontline people to me are the modern saints we have been waiting for—doctors, nurses, janitors, mortuary workers and so many others—Christian and non-Christian, believers and seekers, the spiritual but not religious.
Matthew 25 clarifies things for us: “In so far as you did these things for the least of my disciples you also did it to me.” The humble, genuine, self-sacrificial service towards the neighbour is a form of worship of God.
In a wonderful article (NCR April 1, 2020), young Franciscan theologian, Fr Daniel Horan makes mention of Karl Rahner’s understanding of love of neighbour: “This means, therefore, that the love of neighbor is not merely the preparation, effect, fruit and touchstone of the love of God but is itself an act of this love of God itself; in other words, it is at least an act within that total believing and hoping surrender of man to God which we call love and which alone justifies man i.e. hands him over to God, because, being supported by the loving self-communication of God in the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit, it really unites man with God, not as He is recognized by us but as He is in Himself in His absolute divinity.”
I have been measured and left wanting by this kind of selfless service by Christians/“anonymous Christians”/people of other faiths/the non-committed as they encounter God, knowingly or unknowingly, in the neighbour.
I don’t think I’m ready for death, I who preach about losing one’s life in order to find it. I have reassessed my lonely journey to sanctity; I am not as far ahead as I thought. May this pandemic leave me a better man who dares to strive from good to better.
Fr Martin Sirju is the Vicar General and administrator of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception