This last Sunday, October 21, 2012, over 80,000 pilgrims in traditional Native American garb came to St. Peter’s Square as Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven more Catholic saints. Two of the new saints were Americans: Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint from the U.S., and Mother Marianne Cope, a nineteenth-century Franciscan nun.
Known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” Kateri was born in 1656 to a pagan Iroquois father and a Christian Algonquin mother. She was orphaned at the age of four, the result of a smallpox epidemic that left her scarred and partially blind. She went to live with her uncle, a Mohawk, and was baptized into the Catholic faith by Jesuit missionaries. Her new-found faith, however, caused her to be ostracized by other natives. She died at the age of 24 in what is now Canada.
Saint Marianne was a nun in New York State before moving to the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii. Speaking of the three decades she spent treating infirm outcasts, Pope Benedict said, “At a time when little could be done for those suffering from this terrible disease, Marianne Cope showed the highest love, courage and enthusiasm.”
As the term is commonly used, sainthood is an affirmation that a person is close to God. In Orthodox and Catholic teachings, all who populate heaven are considered saints, but some are seen by the Church to be worthy of a higher degree of veneration, through canonization and the attention and glorification that follows. Other religions use related concepts to honor those who diligently act to bring God’s will into the fallen world. Using different terms, they revere individuals who were exemplary role models and/or iconic teachers, and those who refused material attachments or comforts to accomplish good works in the service of the poor and downtrodden. However chosen and denominated, saints affirm the now-recognized fact that willpower is a far greater asset for achieving holiness of spirit than intelligence and advanced degrees.
Consider the lives of the saints. Kateri Tekakwitha exemplifies well a quality or condition of life shared by most saints–they come from the most common among us. In fact, I’d like to ask a theologian how many saints have come from royalty or the “upper crust” of their respective societies. In any case, little doubt exists that sainthood is not the type of nobility that derives from a rarified lineage or the possession of material wealth.
Rather, what saints have in common is that they see the world through the acquired traits of empathy, compassion, charity, patience, and humility. They are “meek and mild,” or as we might say today, low-keyed and highly self-aware, allowing their consciousness to stand back from their physical presence and observe their conduct from a non-grasping, unemotional vantage point. They shun self-aggrandizement and fame, are not controlling of others in an oppressive way, and refuse to base their emotional well-being on the partial, self-interested, and thus flawed views of critics. Most important, their resolve is unquestioned, their word their deed.
But here is my crowning point: while saints canonized by Rome are rare in number, there are countless “saint-like persons” in our midst. They may not possess the same divinely assigned gifts as a Marianne Cope but are surely imbued with a God-given desire to help others. My friends, we should constantly be on the lookout for individuals who exercise saint-like qualities. What is the realm most fertile with such powerful teachers? You need not look any farther than the next office or cubicle, the house next door, or your own kitchen table. But there is more. We can harvest life’s lessons of service and sacrifice from those outside the terrain where we normally spend our days. People like Tom Clark understand how this works.
Recently I read a wonderful article about Tom Clark. A teacher in Indiana for the past 27 years, Mr. Clark has assigned his students to learn as much as possible about named soldiers killed defending our country. Many whom they study died in WWII. In the process the students, if possible, meet with their soldier’s family members. The students come away with a priceless understanding that these fallen heroes bear witness to a degree of sacrifice that is surely saint-like. That resolute ability to sacrifice is the reason they are so revered.
Think about it: the first people the Christian Church held up as saints were the martyrs, pious believers whose death affirmed the depth of their faith. Does not that depth of faith apply also to our military, each soldier’s faith in his or her country so strong that it infused the soldier with a generosity of spirit to his or her fellow countrymen that is unmatched. Yes, serving with a full comprehension of the living service that might be required to protect the people of one’s nation calls for the same qualities of self-awareness, compassion, and generosity that we observe in the saints of the Church.
Nineteenth-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that, “Death destroys the body, as the scaffolding is destroyed after the building is up and finished. And he whose building is up rejoices at the destruction of the scaffolding and of the body.” At first that seems to be an overly complicated comparison to take in, but upon a second reading, it is quite clear.
Death can destroy only our physical scaffolding, but it has no effect upon the life that we build over the course of our lives, day by day, action by action to serve God’s will through serving others. This service is the greatest legacy that derives from our life efforts. Find those people who are building a legacy worth learning from and stay close to them. Emulate them in your own deeds, day by day. The saints are, of course, in paradise, but on every hand we can become aware of saint-like individuals on earth; in that way lies happiness and success.