For all the saints
I paged through my pre-Vatican II Latin missal. I was seeking a reference for something I remembered about the old liturgical calendar. While thus engaged, my eyes stumbled over this, from the Proper of the Saints:
St. Peter of Verona was a famous preacher of the Dominican Order, opposing heretics from childhood. He never committed mortal sin. He wished to die for his faith, and his prayer was heard A.D. 1252.
I almost threw up a little in the back of my mouth. Such are the cardboard figures, or at least the monochrome hagiographies, so often given to us for our edification.
I have awkward relationships with the saints. It makes sense. I have heard the saints are our friends. And I usually have awkward relationships with my friends.
Case in point: Augustine of Hippo. I cannot figure out whether I should commit to graduate school in theology. Thus I find that Augustine appeals to me. He was a theologian who did not teach at a university. He grounded himself in his workaday world as a small-town bishop.
At the same time, his ideas about original sin and human sexuality–at least in the form that the church chose to appropriate them–have been a great stumbling block for sixteen centuries.
My bonds with people who aren’t yet saints, but soon will be, are also messy. In April, Pope Francis will raise two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, to the altars.
Of course I like John, because his Second Vatican Council began a springtime that cannot be stopped. Still, I have no illusions about Papa Roncalli. He would never have intended women’s ordination or LGBTQ equality.
He did spark a revolution that implies them. But I smile when folks sigh that things would have been different if only John had reigned longer than his allotted five years. As Harry Truman once told an interviewer, heroes know when to die.
And John Paul…well. If the Council’s promise is not only incomplete, but an aggravated incompleteness, it is in large part because John Paul and his appointees made it that way.
The vexing factor here is my heritage. I am, like John Paul, a Pole. My grandfather was born in Poland, on what is now the feast of Catherine of Siena, in 1916. His wife, my grandmother, was a Russian who lived under totalitarian regimes for the first two decades of her life.
Eastern Europe shook off the Soviets with help from Wojtyla. He encouraged his people–my people–to dream. He exposed their overlords as hollow. He allied himself with movements like Solidarnosc, fostering a variation on liberation theology in Poland even as he crippled it elsewhere.
Context is everything. Much of my personal context, like John Paul’s, lies deep in the East. I come from a tribe, and that tribe owes something to him.
I know I have asked Augustine to pray for me. I’m sure I will ask John. I don’t know about asking John Paul.
But who knows; despite everything, I might. Because even with my avowed church-reform biases and commitments, perhaps my biggest bias is toward ambiguity.
There is an anecdote about a desperate, end-of-the-rope penitent who approached an Orthodox priest for confession. But the penitent didn’t want to confess to him. The penitent wanted him to recommend a priest who was a “great sinner.” So, in the sly, knowing way typical of the sorts of priests who turn up in anecdotes, he went and dredged up a great sinner. The penitent confessed to the sinner-priest and was healed.
There is another anecdote, also about an Orthodox priest, who had great fame as a confessor. He counseled the most shattered people and restored them to life. And he was an alcoholic. It was understood that these qualities, for him, went together.
As it is on earth, so it is in heaven. I want the sinners, the delusional, the blind, the ruthless, the flawed, the lusty, the drunken, the immature, the quixotic, the exclusionary, the intolerant, and the self-righteous to all pray for me. For I do the same things. I am one of them. They understand me. They know what to ask. And their dirty halos would not bother me so much if I were not looking in a mirror.