I battle between notions of sainthood which I find in the Bible, and notions of sainthood which have developed organically in the Church over the centuries. We might fairly call these the Protestant and Catholic concepts of sainthood, though ultimately this is too limiting for either idea. As a boy growing up as a Mennonite, whose only regular contact with Catholics was delivering the newspaper to the kindly priest – he tipped me when I had to collect, hence he was kindly – and playing football with Catholic kids at school, I had to form my ideas of Catholic theology from what I observed. Here is what I saw:
- The parish to which I delivered a newspaper was “St. Monica.” St. Monica? Who is that? She was not in the Bible. Did she know Jesus?
- St. Monica had a statue. Was that what she really looked like? Was the statue a reasonable artistic rendition of St. Monica? She looked solemn.
- She wore a robe, so I took it that she came from long ago in a land far, far away, but not too strange or odd a place, because her name was “Monica.” I knew girls named Monica.
- How did she get to be a saint? How did she get so lucky to have a Church named after her? What did she do? Who made her a saint? Who said that she gets to put “saint” before her name “like “doctor” or “miss”? “This is my friend, Saint Monica, but you can call her Monica.”
- When did she become a saint? Was she always a saint? Was she a saint when other kids were going to school? “Are you doing math Monica?” “No, I’m doing saintly stuff. I only have two pages left, only odd questions.”
- If you did something really bad, would you stop being a saint? Or, is the fact you’re a saint determined forever, such that, a saint is a saint because they would never do anything wrong?
On the other hand, Mennonite notions of sainthood were formed from the Bible and by people you knew. My grandmother lived about three houses down from St. Monica’s parish, which meant that someone who loved me was very close to me when I was delivering papers, playing at King George Park – across the street from my grandmother’s house and beside St. Monica’s parish - or going to school. Here is what I saw, heard and read:
- Paul called everyone a saint in his letters, though we rarely referred to Paul as “St. Paul,” just Paul, or Apostle Paul. Everyone was a saint in his letters, including Paul, but we shouldn’t be too showy about it.
- In heaven everyone is a saint. They spent all day loving Jesus, which seemed slightly boring; I thought you might want to mix that up a bit with a game of street hockey or football.
- Not everyone at Church was a saint, and that was simply observing myself and my Sunday School class, who had a hard time keeping “all four legs on the floor and all hands on deck.” This was so that chairs would not tip over backwards and so that people were not hitting each other under the table. In Jesus’ time, I was certain children did not do things like this.
- My grandmother was a saint, though, and never looked as solemn as St. Monica. She always smiled to see me, even though she was old and her life had been so hard, or so I was told. Her husband, Jacob Martens, was killed in a Stalinist concentration camp, after being arrested by the secret police, though no one knew when he died, or how he died. She liked to pinch my cheeks and kiss me and hug me – and feed me.
- She did not like it when we were all at her house for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter if the cousins fought; she would tell us to stop it right now, though it was never serious. No matter what the situation, she would always say, “Just love each other.”
- When they were refugees, leaving the Soviet Union with her boys in a wagon, and her new husband, she told me how much she loved the horse that pulled them to safety, for it walked until its hooves were worn down. She felt like the horse knew it had a job to do, to bring them to safety, and the horse did it. She was grateful for the horse. She did not take it for granted.
- When the Germans wanted to take her oldest son, 14 years old, and put him in the army because they were running out of soldiers, she refused to let him go, she would not let him go. He became my father.
- She loved God and she loved her neighbor. And the “Edge of Night,” she loved the “Edge of Night.”
Naturally, I realize now that most people, Catholic, Mennonite and others, can recall saintly parents, grandparents or other relatives, who have embodied the Christian life in their behavior. I also realize that Monica was a saintly Mother, of St. Augustine, her saintly son, but that the saints of old were not perfect and that me and the other members of my Sunday School class were just boys. I recognize now that we are all intended to be saints; that was what Paul was getting at. By virtue of being members of the Church we are saints and we are called to live up to this vocation. Some we call saints because they have been recognized as such, such as St. Paul, but they were all human beings, fighting the good fight this side of heaven.
In heaven, St. John tells us, these saints, these holy ones, are
“a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands."
They are in the presence of God forever, though it still seems possible to me that all this praise could be accomplished every now and then in the course of a street (of gold) hockey game. And there would be no fighting; we would just love one another.
John W. Martens
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