Now that we’ve survived the excitement of the parish anniversary, I can turn my attention to the next thing up, which in our case is Confirmation. This place just doesn’t stop. Now, I get excited about the sacrament of Confirmation for, primarily, nerdy, academic reasons. This is what my thesis was on; I like being able to talk about the historical development of the sacrament in a variety of contexts, and I have a few strong opinions on the sacrament. But I also get excited about it from a pastoral standpoint, too; it is, after all, a rather important moment in the faith life of our young people, and as such it should be celebrated. And, for that matter, they need to be well-prepared to celebrate the sacrament well.
To that end, we make them write a lot. Among other things, they need to write a letter to the pastor, talking about why they want to be confirmed and what they hope to get from it; there are also essays on Confirmation, conversations they need to have with their sponsors, and finally, an essay on whom they’re choosing as their Confirmation saint, and why.
This year, out of the 93 (or so) people getting confirmed, we have about 13 taking the name of Sebastian. All boys. And I get it, having been a 14-year-old boy myself: Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes, and all these guys think that they’re going to be the next big thing. That’s fine. I just hope they remember that Sebastian was a martyr who was shot with multiple arrows as well as hung, and had his body thrown into the sewers. If you’re ready for all that, ok…but that’s a lot.
Then again, my Confirmation saint is St. Stephen, the first martyr; the account of his death by stoning is in the Acts of the Apostles. So I’ve no room to talk.
The whole endeavor has me thinking. Would I choose Stephen again? (Well, yes.) But who are my other favorite saints?
Michael, Patrick, or Stephen, my patrons?
Norbert? I grew up in a parish dedicated to him.
Elizabeth Ann Seton, John the Baptist de la Salle, Ignatius of Loyola, or Dominic? All of them founded orders that were critical to my education.
Richard? My first priestly assignment was in a parish dedicated to him.
John Paul II? He showed the world how to be a priest.
Irenaeus? I was ordained on his feast day.
So you see what a dilemma this question has become.
And I’ll tell you, as I keep working at this holiness thing, I am becoming more and more convinced of this truth: I need ALL of the saints. I need every single one of them. Because holiness is hard work.
Let’s start by being clear about holiness. Holiness does NOT mean living a life entirely free of sin. (Although, to be clear, if you can live a life entirely free of sin, you should do that. For the rest of us, there’s always confession. What a great sacrament.) Anyway, holiness does not normally mean a life entirely free of sin; what it does mean is a lifelong struggle to do the will of God.
And make no mistake, it IS a struggle. It is hard to do the will of God, especially because we would all much rather do our own will. To subordinate my will to that of another takes a level of humility that is not easily come by. And God’s will is often radically different than our own, and we can find Him to be really challenging. But none of us get a free pass.
The Second Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, reminds us that
The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition. Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them. The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace.
Hard work, but it can be done. Which leads us to the saints. When the Church declares someone to be a saint, it’s not really because we want to give that person extra honor or glory. They’re already in heaven and receiving their eternal reward from our Heavenly Father. There’s nothing that we can do down here that’s going to add to that – I mean, are you really going to out-do God? Let me know how that works out for you.
Instead, the Church declares folks saints so that WE might have them as intercessors, but also as examples. The saints are folks who won the struggle and managed to do the will of God, and if they can do it, then so can we. This morning, I want to briefly reflect on 4 saints, from different places and times, and different states of life, to see how they inspire us.
Saint Lawrence the Deacon: born in Spain, in the year 225, died in Rome in 258. He served Pope Sixtus as the archdeacon of Rome, meaning that among his other duties, he was charged with distributed alms to the poor and taking care of the temporal goods of the Church. After the emperor arrested and killed Pope Sixtus, Lawrence spent the next three days selling as much Church property as he could and giving the proceeds to the poor so the Empire would not get it. When he was arrested, it was demanded that he turn over the treasury to the Empire; he responded by presenting the poor, crippled, and suffering, calling them the “true treasure” of the Church, declaring that the Church is far far richer than your emperor. He suffered a martyr’s death.
Saint Thomas More: born in London, 1478; died in London, 1535. An educated man and a lawyer, he was deeply devoted to his family. He was also deeply devoted to his country, rising to the post of Lord Chancellor. And while he was loyal to king and country, he was not afraid to speak out against the changing tides of public opinion and defended the truth as he understood it, and would not compromise his values even when given an easy out. It lead him to the headsman’s block and an unmarked grave in the Tower of London.
Saint Damian of Molokai: born in Belgium, 1840; died in Hawaii, 1889. He badly wanted to be a missionary, and was excited to be sent to Hawaii. While there, and knowing the risks, he volunteered to be the priest for the leper colony. Despite the health risk, he insisted that the natives be treated with dignity and respect, and served not only as their priest, but as a nurse, a carpenter, a furniture maker, a coffin maker, and a grave digger. When no other Europeans would land on his island, he would stand on the docks and yell his confession in Latin to the priest on board so that he could receive absolution. He would eventually catch leprosy himself, but he kept working until he was completely bed-ridden; he died less than a month later.
Saint Maria Goretti: born in Italy, 1890; died in Italy, 1902. Her family owned a farm, but it failed, forcing them to go to work for other farmers. Shortly thereafter, her father contracted malaria and passed away. While her family worked in the fields, she was a domestic servant for the family that took her in. They were not kind to Maria; one of the sons of that family sexually harassed her often. One day, he confronted her with a knife and attempted to rape her. She fought him off, screaming, “It is a sin! God does not want it!” In his frustration, he stabbed her 14 times. She would die of her wounds the next day, but not before forgiving her attacker and saying, “I want him in heaven with me.” He would attend Maria’s canonization Mass; he stood next to her mother. Saint Maria was 11 years old when she died.
4 different saints, from 4 different times, different places, and different walks of life. Yet they all shared a deep love of the Lord, and each sought to do His will daily. Although their lives were very different from each other, each one of them, and indeed all of the saints, point us towards Jesus Christ, and Him alone.
Our job, as Church, is to do the same – to point everyone we encounter towards Jesus, and Him alone. Pope John Paul II wrote,
The Church has its center in Christ Himself, who is to be known, loved, and imitated, so that in him we might live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a program which does not change with the shifts of times and cultures…it is for all times and for the Third Millenium.
Who will the saints of the 21st century be? Who will be the next generation of heroes to point others to Christ? Pray God that they are sitting in front of me.
One last bonus saint, and I’m done. Actually, he’s not even a saint yet – he’s “just” a Blessed – one step shy of being a saint. His name is Rupert Mayer, and he was a German priest. He was born in 1876, and ordained in 1899. During the first world war, he volunteered as a military chaplain, and requested to go to the front. He would crawl through the trenches where the fighting was fiercest, administering the sacraments as needed. He won the Iron Cross for valor in 1915; in 1916, he was badly wounded and lost his left leg in a grenade attack. After the war, he was a retreat master, but found himself in trouble as the Nazis came to power. He spoke out against them time and time again, even after being arrested and jailed. He spent time in a concentration camp and under house arrest until the Americans liberated him.
Father Mayer died in 1945, on November 1st, the feast of All Saints. He had a massive stroke while celebrating Mass. As he faced his congregation, his last words were simply, “The Lord, the Lord, the Lord.”
It is the Lord that we need to be about. Let us beg Him for the graces we need to point others towards Him, until the day we come to be at home in the halls of heaven with Him and all the saints in glory.