Cambridge, MA. Last night I was reading the International Herald Tribune (how nostalgic!) on a flight back from Germany (University of Paderborn) to Boston. Having missed out of much of the news during my busy week in Paderborn and before that in the “other” Cambridge (UK) for a workshop, I was pleased to see the full coverage given to the decision by Pope Francis to canonize John XXIII as well as John Paul II. Reading the Tribune account (lifted of course from the New York Times), I could see that this is a skillful effort by Francis to reach out more widely to the Catholic community, with both and not just one of these figures. I suppose we all knew that John Paul would be canonized, but the canonization of John seemed until recently a receding horizon, a reality we might, or might not see, in the near future. I would have been happier, I suppose, if he had also decided to canonize both Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. Perhaps later, but for the moment it is good news that Francis will recognize both of these popes together.
Still: I am sure I am not the only reader who also thinks that there is something a little unseemly about popes canonizing preceding popes, particularly recent ones: while recognizing the holiness of one or another pope is of course appropriate, one can only also feel that at the very top of the Church there is just too much of a tangle of faith and piety and ecclesial power and politics, and too much room for mixed messages when popes declare their recent predecessors to be saints. How could we avoid even the appearance of the cult of personality, self-congratulation among leaders raised to leadership by a preceding pope, or the unseemly canonization of some particular view of the Church and issues that are still open to debate? We might make it a rule to wait one hundred years, or perhaps two hundred, before considering the canonization of any pope.
But to change the topic, slightly and just for a moment: how do we recognize saints in a Church that is on mission?
I was impressed by the wisdom regarding ministry and mission found in today’s Gospel (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C), from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus sends out the seventy disciples – presumably ordinary, not particularly well-known men and women – on a mission to surrounding towns and villages. The message to them is also a list of criteria by which to recognize those who speak in the name of Jesus. Here are seven criteria I teased out for my early morning homily today.
First, mission is a matter of vulnerability and a certain helplessness: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (10.3)
Second, what does one do in that dangerous situation? The answer is, Do not protect yourself, just go: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” (10.4)
Third, once the disciple gets to a village, she or he seems required to be in need, dependent on the local people” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.” (10.5-7) The person on mission is not supposed to be self-sufficient, a giver who needs nothing in return; the disciple on mission depends on the hospitality of those she or he meets: she cannot do the work unless the people accept her.
Fourth, what does the representative of Christ say, what is the message? Here at least, repentance and conversion, or even membership in the community of believers, are not the primary matters. The work seems, in this account, rather to be very simple: Offer words of peace, and then, be a healer: “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (10.8-9) The mission is about making people well, and then recognizing the kingdom to be present among these people who have welcomed the disciples: in a sense, the kingdom arrives; in another sense, the disciple is simply pointing out that the kingdom has arrived: no preconditions, no membership requirements beyond hospitality to the stranger: Good News, for free.
Fifth, when things go wrong — there really are wolves, we cannot forget — one is not to stay around, arguing or combating those who do not welcome the disciple: “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.’” (10.10-11) And yet still, the message is the same: “The kingdom of God has come near.” (10.11) Rejection and hostility do not change the message, as if to imagine a community that should hunker down and protect itself behind walls. The mission is for disciples on the move, missionaries who do not settle down by building houses and then fortresses; when things do not work, just keep going.
Sixth, “The seventy returned with joy,” amazed at their power over even demons. In a longer reflection, we might ponder this first mention of demons in the chapter, but for now, it is sufficient to notice the joy with which they return: they are not gloomy, angry, possessed of a pessimistic view of society and the future of the world. They go out, have successes and failures, and come back rejoicing. Does the disciple experience and manifest joy? If there is no joy, one can rightly wonder about the depth of the disciple’s grasp of the mission.
Seventh, to return to the start of the words of Jesus in the tenth chapter of Luke: He is sending them “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” (10.2) That is to say, however skilled the disciples are, they are not replacements for Jesus, authorized speakers for a Lord who will not speak for himself. He himself is coming. The mission is not about them or a prudent replacement for Jesus. Disciples do their work, and get out of the way when Jesus himself shows up.
Risk, humility, vulnerability, words of peace, healing, announcing the advent of the kingdom, mobility, joy, stepping aside that Jesus may be seen and heard directly: this is a handy list of criteria for sanctity in a Church that needs to be on mission. The first miracle for sainthood: the miracle of transparency, preparing the way without being in the way.
That we are never told the names of any of these disciples does not militate against canonizing very well-known and powerful popes or figures whose names are recognized everywhere in the world. But it should remind us that beyond the twelve apostles – six times over – are the anonymous men and women who go to every village, with good news and yet penniless and in need, in order to open up times and spaces when Jesus may appear. We must at least remember that for every leader who is canonized, many more saints live out their holiness precisely in the smallness and anonymity of their mission, to all those small towns and out of the way places where Jesus very much intends to visit.
This is of course a messy process, hardly likely to provide a list of names for honoring. But perhaps such disciples do not need canonization?