The Communion of Saints
One of the challenges of raising and educating children among the urban poor is finding heroes for them. Despite the low poll numbers Barak Obama still retains hero status among most of my youth here at the school because someone who is “one of us” became president of the United States, and those examples of success are often few and far between in this community. Presidential politics aside, I find the notion of embracing heroes somewhat refreshing in a world that is so often riddled with the historical amnesia of a contemporary information overload that has little space for quaint stories of old...
One of the challenges of raising and educating children among the urban poor is finding heroes for them. Despite the low poll numbers Barak Obama still retains hero status among most of my youth here at the school because someone who is “one of us” became president of the United States, and those examples of success are often few and far between in this community. Presidential politics aside, I find the notion of embracing heroes somewhat refreshing in a world that is so often riddled with the historical amnesia of a contemporary information overload that has little space for quaint stories of old.
I have always loved going to religious shrines. At Valparaiso I routinely traveled to Muenster, Indiana to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Monastery, first to see my fledgling Latin come alive at the Tridentine Mass, but later just wander the shrine and pray and meditate on the different forms of heroism evidenced by such saints as Maximilian Kobe and Therese Lesieux .
At seminary in St. Louis, my one-day get away retreat became the Franciscan Black Madonna Shrine out in the country in Eureka, Missouri. Since I was serving a parish in East St. Louis, Illinois, the Black Madonna, scarred and yet beautiful and pious, took on special significance, and to this day remains one of my favorite images of the mother of our Lord.
One of my first trips as a pastor in the Bronx was made at the instigation of Sylvia Foreman, a dear Slovak woman, who had been catechized by Jaroslov Pelikan’s father and whose personal mission entailed caring deeply for area pastors. At her instigation, my wife and I hopped a train to Montreal in a blizzard one February break, to visit the Oratory of St. Joseph, a monastery made famous by the healer, Brother Andre, a man would later officially be canonized by the Roman Catholic church in 2010.
It has always been troubling to me that I have had to go outside of Lutheranism to find these places of spiritual reflection and retreat. While Augustana XXI takes a cautious approach to remembrance of the saints (“it cannot be proved from the Scriptures that we are to invoke saints or seek help from them”) nevertheless:
It is also taught among us that saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened when we see what grace they received and how they were sustained by faith. Moreover their good works are to be an example for us, each of us in his own calling. (Tappart XXI.1)
Much like private confession, when it comes to the veneration of saints, we have been so careful to avoid misuse and abuse that contra our own confessional documents our churches and parishes have often abandoned the practice altogether. The removal of saints has led to a religious piety that is at times over intellectualized and uninspiring.
All of this was brought home for me again this summer. As a part of our summer vacation, my family found itself in Fonda, New York at the birthplace Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, one of the catholic heroes of American Indigenous peoples. It was remarkable to see the inspired reaction of my daughters as we wandered the grounds and learned more about this heroic young woman who was “one of them.”
If our American sense of national pride is stronger when we inculcate our youth with stories of our nation’s heroes – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, MLK, and provide them with a greatness to which they could aspire, why wouldn’t our sense of Christian pride and identity be strengthened when we see how our sisters and brothers have been strengthened and sustained by their faith?
While it is doubtful that we will see a Kateri type shrine within Lutheranism anytime soon, perhaps it is not too farfetched to hope for a rediscovery of the great witness of the communion of saints, to inspire this next generation of Lutheran Christians with the power of God that works through the Means of Grace and the men and women formed by those Means of Grace.
What might this look like? It might look like a revival of church adornment and architecture that is unafraid to display the story of these saints. It might even look like an updated martyriology that remembers the great sacrifice of fathers and mothers in the faith, as the Fall 2011 issue of Lutheran Forum does with its remembrance of the first “Lutheran” martyrs, Johann, Hendrik, and Henry. Ultimately, it embraces a sacramental theology which understands that the Body of Christ received, actually does something in forming the Body of Christ in the world.
In praising Kateri, Roman Catholic Bishop Howard J. Hubbard writes:
In this day and age, when the pleasure-principle so dominates our society, and when people expend all kinds of time, effort and energy to remove the Cross from Christianity and to escape the sometimes harsh realities and responsibilities of mature Christian living, Kateri Tekakwitha stands as an heroic example of how to integrate the mystery of the Cross with the mystery of the Resurrection in a way that gives honor and glory to God and that ensures loving service to His people.
Such, at its best, should be the Lutheran vision of the appropriate veneration of Christ’s saints.