On October 13th, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, proclaimed five new members of the Catholic Church as canonized saints. Four were women – three were religious and one was a layperson. Their greatness comes not so much because of the many works they did well in their lives (although this can contribute to the process), but because they lived lives of personal holiness, were often deeply immersed in prayer before taking active roles in building up the Body of Christ, and served as shining examples of what it is to thank God each day by using wisely his gifts for the good of others as well as working out our assent to Christ’s saving action in our life.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us in his writings that the call to holiness “does not consist in carrying out extraordinary enterprises, but in being united with Christ, in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, his behavior.” The holiness of the saints, therefore, lies first and foremost in their being and not in their doing. They may have accomplished great things, and many did, but their holiness derives from being docile to Christ and allowing him to live completely in them. Some might think such a transformation robs a person’s freedom or stunts his or her joy. However, as Pope Francis points out and the witness of the saints shows, just the opposite occurs. Instead of diminishing life, holiness makes a person more alive, more human. Indeed, becoming more Christlike only deepens and expands a person’s energy, vitality, and joy, as he or she discovers, in the words of Saint John Paul II, “the greatness, dignity, and value that belong to his or her humanity.” Such growth in holiness certainly demands a personal relationship with the Lord, but this is no mere private experience. For the saint, there can be no “me and Jesus” moment indifferent to the wider community. On the contrary, friendship with Christ enlarges a saint’s relationship with his or her brothers and sisters. So, the saints, each in their own way, and each in their own time and place, became a transformative force for good in the world. They became prophetic heralds of Christ’s joy, mercy, and healing presence in their thoughts, words, and deeds.
The fifth saint was an Englishman, John Henry Newman, who converted to Catholicism from his early Anglicanism. He even had been an Anglican priest, searching for the truth, and eventually found it in Catholicism. Four years later, he was ordained a Catholic priest. In his extensive theological writings, he vigorously defended the Catholic Faith. Many people today refer to him as the greatest theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. He also established the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in a hostile climate of English anti-Catholicism and, in 1854, founded the Catholic University of Ireland. His prolific lectures and writings, first at Oxford (though later forced out because of his Catholicism) and later throughout much of England, helped bring several prominent members of English intellectual circles into the Catholic fold in what was termed the Oxford Movement. At the same time, he lost some old friends who refused to follow his Catholic ways. The span of his life incorporated a period of immense innovation and change for his English homeland. He watched the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution and the societal shifts it generated. His almost ninety years of life witnessed scientific discoveries, technological advances, improvements in communication, and new forms of transportation. Moreover, he lived in the midst of new intellectual ideas. He saw the good these innovations rendered and faced the new problems they posed. All of this makes him, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted, “above all a modern man, who lived the whole problem of modernity.”
He suffered much because of his writings, both from outside and inside (jealousy?) the Church. Recognized for his brilliance and persuasive argumentation through his gifted use of the English language, he was named a cardinal in 1879, by Pope Leo XIII, he continued his pastoral and educative work in the Birmingham area for as long as his weakened body allowed him. He died in 1890, and was beatified in 2010, by Pope Benedict XVI. The oldest book I’ve owned in my library is a collection of simple, but deeply profound spiritual thoughts by this holy man in a book called “Heart to Heart,” which also was a favorite expression of this convert whom we now call a “saint.” It was given as a Christmas-time Pollyanna gift from a second-grade classmate who once thought that I might become a priest. How fortunate I was to receive such a gift. I can’t help but think that it influenced, in some measure, my future vocation.