The tragic murder of my fellow priest of the Paterson Diocese, Father Ed Hines, six years ago this past month occasioned expressions of unconditional love not unlike that of the Amish folk of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, three years prior to that, when they openly and immediately forgave the man who had shot and killed their children. The Amish community, you will remember, opened its hearts and its doors to the murderer’s widow and children, insisting that they stay with them for as long as they’d find comfort and solace among friends who loved and cared for them.
Father Hines’ murder in Chatham, New Jersey, was similar in that the people of St. Patrick’s Parish, shocked and grief-stricken over the unexplainable slaughter of their beloved pastor, prayed first and foremost for his apparently crazed killer, his wife and their two young children. If, as an anonymous wise person long ago put it, a saint is someone the light shines through, then we can say truthfully that bursts of light came from Lancaster and from Chatham within our memories.
Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and popular commentator on the Catholic Church in America today, has reminded us that we are used to violence; we are flooded with reports of it, both foreign and domestic, every hour of every day. She said, “It was not the violence suffered by the Amish community that surprised people…What really stunned the country about the attack on the small schoolhouse in Pennsylvania was that the Amish community itself simply refused to hate what had hurt them.”
She went on to inform us that an Amish grandfather told his children at the mouth of one little girl’s grave, “Do not think evil of this man.”
The Amish delegation told the family of the murderer, “Do not leave this area. Stay in your home here. We forgive him.”
Again, Sr. Joan: “Never had we seen such a thing. Here they were, those whom our Christian ancestors called ‘heretics,’ who were modeling Christianity for all the world to see. The whole lot of them. The entire community of them. Thousands of them at one time.”
What we have been privileged to witness in both events are modern stories of genuine sainthood.
This doesn’t mean that they are all perfect, these Amish Christians or the Catholics of St. Patrick’s in Chatham. It means that, in an aspect of life that Jesus emphasized was most important, they permitted the light of their Godly behavior to shine through for all others to see and to imitate. They were not looking for glory or recognition or praise; they were simply following the example and the teachings of Jesus without compromise. That’s what sainthood essentially consists of.
We tend to associate the celebrated sanctity of the saints with a particular deed or characteristic or event. St. Lawrence for being roasted on a spit. St. Therese of Lisieux for her humility. St. Isaac Jogues and his companions for their death by slow torture. St.Joan of Arc for her military courage in a just cause. And so on.
But actually, sainthood embraces one’s whole life; it has more to do with attitude and disposition and habitual conscience than with a single act. Sainthood is living in the conscious presence of the Spirit of God and trying always to conform to the directions of that Spirit. Sainthood is a lifestyle, a way of living every day.
St. Paul regularly addressed his brothers and sisters in the Christian community as “saints.” Were he here today, that’s what he would call you and me. And none of us should say, “Oh, not me! I’m no saint. If you knew what I’ve done and said and thought, you’d never call me a saint!”
That response misses the point. We are not born consciously committed to perfect union with the Creative Spirit; it is a long, hard struggle for virtually all of us to reach such a state of oneness with God. We sin and stumble and fall countless times along the way to spiritual maturity, and everyone’s timetable is different.
Today, All Saints Day, we gather with fellow Christians all over the world to remember, honor, bless, and thank all those good people – named and unnamed — who lived on this earth before us and have inspired us by living in imitation of Jesus, each in his or her own way, despite the limitations of the same human nature with which we came into existence. If they were able so to shine, so are we!