It’s late in the evening now, but earlier today I got to see a little bit of history happen. Pope Francis declared before the whole world that John Henry Cardinal Newman is a saint in heaven. It wasn’t the first (or the twentieth) time I’ve seen similar bits of history happen. Deo volente, it won’t be the last. It wasn’t the biggest or loudest or grandest or the most spectacular — in fact, as far as these things go, it was fairly essential — but for me, it was the most deeply moving that I can recall.
I hardly noticed it when it happened. Watching as I was from the press stand above the colonnade that stretches around the right, southern skirt of St Peter’s Square (the left colonnade as one faces the basilica’s façade), there was a good bit of movement around me, of which I was a part, as there was work to be done: details to note (process and record or discard), colleagues to greet or assist (or from whom to ask assistance — did you catch that? — free chairs to spy and occupy.
The banners were already unfurled: the images of St John Henry and the four women (Brazilian-born St Dulce Lopes — “Brazil’s Mother Teresa”and the Italian St Giuseppina Vannini, who founded the Sisters of St Camillus, the Indian foundress and stigmatist, St Mariam Thresia, and the lay mystic and stigmatist, St Marguerite Bays, to his right and to his left) who were canonised with him, had been greeting pilgrims reaching the square all morning.
The weight and pitch of the thing — its moment — has been making its way through me ever since it did happen.
John Henry Newman is declared a saint in heaven, worthy of petition for intercession from every altar on which true worship of the true God is offered in all the world, until the breaking of it. That is something, isn’t it?
All through the weekend, the atmosphere in the city has been intensely celebratory: determined, but not deliberate, almost like that of soldiers on furlough — but from what? — or reminiscent of the easy — if fleeting and tenuous — camaraderie of animals that are natural enemies, when they meet at a salt lick. Only, we are not brute beasts, nor are we at war — not with each other — and the source from which we sip is sweet.
I confess that, at one point over the weekend celebratory, I likened the atmosphere to that of the 1914 Christmas Truce. Newman likely would have been appalled at the likeness I drew, but none of my interlocutors objected. Everyone wants Newman for his side, but the truth is, we ought to love him at least as much for the ways in which his example challenges and convicts us, as we do for the ways in which his impossibly prolific literary output may be mined for supports in our pet causes.
Saints make this business personal. Some encounters over the weekend pressed this home to me.
I saw my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Sr Sheeba, in the Square on Sunday morning before the Mass. A religious sister, she lives next door to us and teaches at the convent school of the Grey Franciscan Sisters of St Elisabeth (of Hungary), a congregation founded by St Ludovico of Casoria (canonised in November 2014). “We see her up there,” she told me, indicating (it seemed) Sr Mariam Thresia’s image hanging from the loggia, “and we feel that the call she answered is ours, and we want to answer it, as well.” It could have been any of them, I suppose, or all of them, but when I turned to look for her again, she had disappeared.
Like the others, St Giuseppina was depicted in style, the red Cross of St Camillus bright on her black habit. It made me think of my great aunt, Aida, who lived her last years in a St Camillus nursing home. I did not visit her often enough, though I made a show of doing service there when I was a boy.
I mention these connections because they drove home for me how sanctity surrounds us and permeates our environs: holiness is always before us, making the uncomprehended divine illumination of the world manageably palpable to our senses. Lead, kindly light.
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