October 26, 2022 // Perspective

Joyful Saints

To an extrovert like myself, being part of a joyful crowd is a foretaste of heaven. A crowd of happy people generates even more laughter and joy, much like a snowball that grows in size as it rolls downhill. Merriment builds and bubbles to the point where it’s almost impossible to pick out any individual voice among the sheer volume of happy noise. 

The communion of saints is an excellent image of such a joyful crowd. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (12:1), who themselves preserved the faith, handed it on, and now encourage us in our life of faith. And while all of the baptized are already members of this communion of saints (even you and me), the Church publicly recognizes particular people as worthy of imitation. In a formal process called “canonization,” the Church examines the life, writings, and ongoing impact of candidates for recognition as saints. Those who are considered worthy are added to the formal list (the “canon”) to be celebrated and honored throughout the universal Church.

In this month of October, we have several examples of saints who are notable for being especially joyful models of Christian discipleship. The month began with St. Therese of Lisieux (Oct. 1), the much-beloved patroness of missionaries who herself was a cloistered Carmelite nun. In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she described being healed of a nervous tremor when she looked at a statue of the Virgin Mary and saw the statue smile. “Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am,” she wrote. She is best remembered for her “little way,” having devoted her life to daily acts of kindness and charity toward her sisters in the convent. Though she suffered much in her short life due to illness, succumbing to tuberculosis at age 24, she took consolation in easing the sufferings of others through performing small works of love with a joyful heart. Her little way continues to encourage people today.

Pope St. John XXIII (Oct. 11), known as “the Good Pope,” is remembered chiefly for convoking the Second Vatican Council. He was raised in a large family, the 4th of 13 children, born to sharecropping parents in northern Italy. He spent most of his life in diplomatic service on behalf of the Vatican and was noted for nurturing cordial relations with the Muslim world, as well as his efforts to aid European Jews and other refugees to escape persecution during World War II. But he was also remembered for his witty remarks. Legendarily, when once asked how many people worked in the Vatican, he is said to have replied, “About half.” Another story relates that not long after his election, he overheard a woman exclaim in a loud voice, “My God, he’s so fat!” “Madame,” the new pope replied, “the holy conclave isn’t exactly a beauty contest!” The Good Pope is a model of not taking oneself too seriously, no matter how lofty the vocation to which God has called you.

October features another influential Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila (Oct. 15). Born into Spanish nobility in 1515, she entered religious life at age 20, and soon became known for providing spiritual direction to her fellow nuns and visitors to the convent. She experienced deep intimacy with God in her prayer, as well as periods of soul-crushing spiritual dryness. Like one of her own heroes, St. Augustine, she wrote extensively about her own struggles in being a disciple of Jesus Christ, penning several autobiographical books and treatises on mystical spirituality. She viewed the lax discipline that was practiced at her convent as a distraction that prevented intimacy with Jesus and worked to reform her order.

But St. Teresa did not impose a deadly religious seriousness on her sisters, saying that, “A sad nun is a bad nun. I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits. … What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.” Her own intimate relationship with God is perhaps best illustrated by a story describing her slipping down an embankment during a fierce rainstorm, where she fell into the mud. Looking to heaven, she admonished God, “Why would You let this happen to me?” The Almighty replied, “This is how I treat my friends,” to which Teresa responded, “Then it’s no wonder why You have so few of them!” How many of us feel close enough to our Lord to be able to complain in the same familiar tone we would use with a dear friend?

On Oct. 22, we celebrated a contemporary witness of joy, St. John Paul II. Having been an actor and playwright in his younger days, the Polish pope had a stage presence and a sense of timing that even the best comedians would love to have. One day, he slipped on a newly installed piece of carpeting in St. Peter’s Basilica and fell several steps. On his way out, he said to the crowd, “I have fallen, but I have not been demoted.” While speaking in New York’s Central Park during a pastoral visit to the United States, he mentioned one of his favorite Polish Christmas carols, which he then began to sing. When the crowd enthusiastically cheered his performance, he responded, “And to think – you don’t even know Polish!” Ad-libbed remarks like these are comedy gold, especially when they unexpectedly come from the mouth of a pope or a saint.

But for me, the most memorable phrase from St. John Paul the Great is one that comes to mind every time I think about him. At the beginning of his first homily as pope, he urged the entire Church to “Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” This is a joyful legacy – a reminder to trust in God, “who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). This is the sort of encouragement that we find among the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses.

Ken Hallenius is a syndicated radio host and podcaster living in South Bend. For more, visit blog.hallenius.org.

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