You cannot deny that it is perfectly possible that to-morrow morning in Ireland or in Italy there might appear a man not only as good but good in exactly the same way as St. Francis of Assisi. Very well; now take the other types of human virtue: many of them splendid. The English gentleman of Elizabeth was chivalrous and idealistic. But can you stand still in this meadow and be an English gentleman of Elizabeth? The austere republican of the eighteenth century, with his stern patriotism and his simple life, was a fine fellow. But have you ever seen him? Have you ever seen an austere republican? Only a hundred years have passed and that volcano of revolutionary truth and valour is as cold as the mountains of the moon. And so it will be with the ethics which are buzzing down Fleet Street at this instant as I speak. What phrase would inspire a London clerk or workman just now? Perhaps that he is a son of the British Empire on which the sun never sets; perhaps that he is a prop of his Trades Union, or a class-conscious proletarian something or other; perhaps merely that he is a gentleman, when he obviously is not. Those names and notions are all honourable, but how long will they last? Empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last for ever. What will remain? I will tell you the Catholic saint will remain.
G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross
One of the reasons I am a Catholic (and I really have to write a comprehensive article listing them; although it might well become a book!) is because of the saints. I think the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded because the Catholic Church keeps making saints.
Christ said he was coming to bring fire on the Earth. It is a singular characteristic of non-Catholic churches (and I'm not trying to insult anybody here) that they start out with a blaze of enthusiasm but, in decades or centuries, grow anything but fiery.
Does the term "Lutheran", used in a modern context, make you think of Martin Luther nailing the theses to the church door (whether he actually did that or not)? Does "Methodist", in a modern context, make you think of John Wesley's quest for Christian perfection and electrifying open-air preaching? Does "Quaker" make you think of anything but a heritage centre?
No, it doesn't.
Of course, there are still "fiery" Christians in the world, outside the communion of the Roman Catholic faith. The Pentecostal churches are vibrant, especially in South America. Protestantism, in its many forms, is still a living force in America. (I passed an American Evangelical preacher in Grafton Street yesterday, who was denouncing "the Papacy". I felt a lot more respect for him than I do for many who espouse a soggy non-denominationalism.) And the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses cannot be accused of lukewarmness.
But there is one Church that is to be found on every continent, in every culture, and where the fire of Christ has not stopped burning in all the centuries of its existence. And that is the Catholic Church, founded on the See of Peter.
When we read about a Padre Pio, or a John Henry Newman, or a Jose Maria Escriva, or a Mother Teresa, or a Matt Talbot, or an Edel Quinn, or (indeed) a G.K. Chesterton, we feel as though we had been exposed to an electric current-- the same electric current, the ecstatic urgency, that pervades the pages of the Acts of the Apostles. Here are people who lived in pretty much the same world as us-- the world of telephones and airplanes and electric lights and tinned food and mass marketing-- but who took seriously the words of St. Paul, "Now I live not, but Christ lives in me". People for whom this "first century rabbi" was the Alpha and Omega of life. People who seemed, in the words of Christ to the Samaritan woman, to have "meat to eat, which you know not".
Here are people who always seemed to be asking-- what more can I give, in gratitude for what Christ gave me?
I think the metaphor of an electric current is a good one. In fact, it's the metaphor that always leaps to my mind when I think of sanctity.
There aren't very many people left in European Protestantism who attack the cult of the saints, although it is still a common target in American Protestantism. The idea that the honour paid to Mary and the other saints somehow takes away from Christ, or distracts us from him, seems to run counter to our assumptions in the rest of life. We never think that the genius of Shakespeare, for instance, is diminished by all the other writers and artists and film-makers who have drawn on his work. We assume that Shakespeare's glory is only magnified by such borrowings.
The saints are like conductors, and Christ is the source of the current they conduct.
Nietzsche's aphorism that "there was only one Christian, and he died on the Cross" is falsified by the lives of the saints. Gandhi's churlish comment (and why is Ghandi so uncritically admired?) that "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians" is made hollow by the witness of the saints.
"Be followers of me, as I also am of Christ", said St. Paul. What is this but an endorsement of the cult of the saints?
As for my own favourite saint-- that's easy. It is St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the great defender of Trinitarian and Catholic orthodoxy at a time when Arianism seemed poised to win the day. In our time and culture, when being "out of touch with the modern world" is seen as such an unforgiveable sin, the motto associated with this great Doctor of the Church-- "Athanasius Contra Mundum", Athanasius Against the World-- is a bracing and salutary one.
Of course, if the cause for G.K. Chesterton's sainthood succeeds, St. Athanasius will have to take second place...
But that's another thing about Catholicism, another reason I feel so sure that Catholicism is true. It's the fact that-- all things being equal, and as long as we don't fall into heresy, or abandon our social responsibilities-- the spirit of Catholicism is that more is better.
Sects that break away from the Catholic Church always seem to want to take something away from the deposit of faith, or from the practice of faith. They always seem to want to settle for less, and for fewer.
Fewer sacraments. Fewer books in the Bible. Fewer dogmas. Fewer ecumenical councils. Fewer religious services. Fewer religious devotions. Fewer objects of our devotion. Rarer communion. The Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father only, and not the Father and the Son.
This is even true of atheists and naturalists. Catholics believe in everything that a Carl Sagan or a Richard Dawkins believes in. We believe in the scientific method, empiricism, and the wonders of the natural world. We also believe in miracles. We believe in everything the naturalist believes in, but more besides.
The spirit of Catholicism is the spirit of creation, with its millions of galaxies and its unthinkable abundance of landscapes and of living things.
It is the Church, and not consumer society or libralism, that really says: "Go for it". Lifelong fidelity in marriage? Go for it. Consecrated celibacy? Go for it. Devoting your life to the poor and embracing holy poverty? Go for it. The rosary? Go for it. More prayer, more fasting, more Eucharistic adoration? Go for it, go for it, go for it.
Don't do it recklessly or fecklessly. But if you truly understand what you are undertaking, and it is in line with the teachings of the Church-- go for it, and don't be half-assed about it.
Modern culture, it's true, sees the Catholic Church as the great "nay-sayer", or at least, one great nay-sayer. But every "yes" can also be construed as a "no". "Yes" to lifelong marriage is "no" to adultery and divorce. "Yes" to life is "no" to abortion and euthanasia. "Yes" to God is "no" to Mammon.
My contention would be that it is the things that the Church encourages us to say "yes" to that are the truly life-giving, horizon-opening things, and the things that the Church says "no" to are the things that diminish life, diminish choice, diminish our humanity.
And one of the things the Church says "Yes" to-- and not a muted "Yes", but a resounding and a triumphant "Yes"-- is the honour due to the saints, to that wonderful cloud of witnesses that we are so fortunate to celebrate today.
Happy All Saints' Day!