On this day in 1976, in St Peter’s, Rome, John Ogilvie was canonized. There’s a full account in the Scottish Catholic Directory of 1978, pp. 432-437. Andrew Mann read the 1st reading and Colin Stewart, here tonight as Dean, was there too, a new student in the Scots College. Last Sunday, 13 October 2019, in Rome, another John was canonized, John Henry Newman – the first canonization of a Brit since our local hero, 43 years ago. It was good to be there. Tonight, rather than speak about either John directly, let me say something about the Catholic practice of canonization. What’s it about?
It’s a task of the Pope normally. It’s preceded by a long process of inquiry into the life and holiness of the person concerned. The first issue of that is declaration as a ‘blessed’, beatification. Normally, two posthumous miracles are required, one before beatification, the other before canonization. There has to be popular devotion to the potential saint. The ceremony itself takes place within Mass, near the beginning, linking the saint to God’s Word and Christ’s Sacrifice. So, last Sunday, the Veni Creator was sung; someone suitably relevant then petitioned the Pope to enroll those being canonised in the catalogue of saints. Brief biographies followed, the litany of saints was sung and the Pope proceeded, in a solemn formula, to declare the hitherto blessed “to be saints, and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.” Alleluia was sung. The Pope was thanked and asked, rather quaintly, to draw up letters giving effect to the caonisation. He promised to do so, and Mass proceeded.
So much for the process, but what’s the meaning? First of all, X is now added to the normative list (or canon) of recognized saints. He or she has a place in a book called the Martyrology. Its latest edition is dated 2004. It contains some 7000 saints and blessed, listed according to their day, from 1 January to 31 December, each with a brief biographical note. (All in Latin, by the way, with three heroic souls working away in Hammersmith, London to prepare an English translation). So a saint, as in the Mikado, is someone on a list – of recognized holiness and with the glorified Lord. Secondly, there’s a liturgical dimension. Canonisation means that he or she can now be part of the public liturgy of the Church, her ‘canonical prayer’, throughout the Roman Rite. A Blessed is only celebrated locally, a Saint universally. So after inscription in a book, on a list, comes inscription in the public prayer of the Church. But then a third thing too. As we know – hope for us all – there are more saints than the Saints. Hence the feast of All Saints. Who can count those who have lived the Beatitudes? So, why canonize some? To offer them, I think, as an especially eloquent, luminous pattern of Christian life, a norm, a carpenter’s rule, and this at a given moment of the Church’s history. So, here’s a third inscribing: not just in a book or a liturgical calendar, but also in our lives – in the book of our own life, in the personal liturgy of our life, in our experience of the things of God. Inscribed, let’s say, as an inspiration, as a friend and companion, an ally, an intercessor, or hung like a living icon in the church of our heart. One Preface of Saints says it well: “By their way of life you offer us an example, by communion with them you give us companionship, by their intercession, sure support, so that encouraged by so great a cloud of witnesses, we may run as victors in the race before us and win with them the imperishable crown of glory” Marathons have been in the news. There’s the story of Pheidippides, the Greek who ran from Marathon to Athens in record time with news of the Greek victory over the Persians – the first marathon – and as he ran felt accompanied by the god Pan. I’m not here to spread devotion to Pan, but in life’s marathon, there are invisible runners beside us.
One St. Andrew’s Day, I was invited to dinner by some friendly Episcopalians. Each of us had to bring to the table a saint who had impacted on their lives. I wish I could repeat what people came out with. It was impressive. But one common theme was the experience of being given saints, rather as we are given friends quite as much as choosing them. People felt personally engaged by these heavenly beings: their lives subtly interwoven with another’s, something of eternity intersecting their time. In a canonization and in the liturgy, the Church gives us saints. But ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’. And there follows a kind of divine reiteration of this giving. It’s as if the Father, who knows what his children need, gives us, individually and corporately, the friends and companions, the patterns and examples we need. There are moments – what they call “thin moments” – when the saints can come very close, their music catches our ears, their words meet our situation. They embody the word of God, like Christ. They’re his refractions and reflections; the artwork of the Holy Spirit. And they’re there. Newman had a great sense of this, especially from the time his favourite sister, Mary, died at 18. Hidden in the visible world is an invisible world, and the latter is the more real. Here, things “seem”; there, they “are”. St Paul has it: “we look not to the things that are seen but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). (And don’t the unseen things – the saints among them – look at us too?) Moses, says the Letter to the Hebrews, “left Egypt – i.e. went on the Paschal journey – …; he held to his purpose like someone who could see the Invisible” (Heb 11:27).
So, no Exodus without sight of the Invisible, and no journey without companions, Jesus and Mary first of all, and then many others. We are not alone. ‘A single Christian is no Christian’, said St Cyprian. We are accompanied, visibly and invisibly. The saints are inscribed in the Martyrology, inscribed in the Liturgy, and can inscribe themselves in our own stories too. One day they will shine out and run like sparks through the stubble, one day the Kingdom of heaven will have the field to itself. And meanwhile, like John Ogilvie and John Henry Newman, let’s try and hold to our purpose and strive for “the holiness without which no-one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
(St Thomas, Keith, 17 October 2019)