Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.
We’re all different, with varied spiritual temperaments, so it’s not surprising that saints appeal to us for different reasons. Let me tell you one of mine.
In the inevitable human mix that is religion, culture and society, we sometimes are led to believe that God wants nothing more of us than politeness and that the very height of rudeness is rocking the boat of church institutions. Saints remind me of how holiness sometimes involves the courage to let God work through us in startling, even scandalous ways.
For you see, the greatest saints were all, to a person, men and women who broke boundaries, stepped over lines and broke lots of unwritten rules. Somehow, they managed the miracle of submitting to God through Church authority with honest good cheer at the same time as they puzzled and enraged some who wielded the stick of what they said was that same authority.
Think Francis of Assisi. Think Teresa of Avila. Heavens, think John of the Cross, imprisoned by his fellow monks. Think of humble visionaries quietly but bravely maintaining the truth of what they’d seen despite the scorn and the browbeating of the learned clerics sent in to test them.
It seems as if in every age, God is willing to do plenty of brand new things, despite the worries of those in power who fear what they might lose.
One of the reasons this appeals to me is that I see so many of the problems of our contemporary church rooted in people’s fears of change and their investment in aspects of Church practice and organization that just don’t work – and I’m not talking “patriarchal hierarchical structure” here. I’m not in league with those who use the examples of people like Francis and Teresa to advance their own anti-Church agendas, celebrating the saints’ boldness and vision while ignoring their respect for the Church as the Body of Christ now, not just in some vague future when it’s been remade in their image.
No, I’m talking about the vexing problem of Catholic schools and religious ed programs that don’t catechize, about chancery offices and parish ministries that do nothing to spread the Gospel and everything to waste people’s times and resources, about attempts to “fix” liturgy that encourage the people in the pews to do everything imaginable – except pray.
Most of the time, the answer to all of these problems revolve exclusively around firmly established structures and ways of thinking: Get new religious education materials. Work through the school board or faculty councils to improve the school. Put the parish or diocesan staff through endless meetings and retreats where they’re asked to “envision” and write “mission statements” and do “long-range planning” or “share stories” or whatever else someone can think of to avoid the call of Jesus to just get out of the office, spread the Good News, and tend to the poor.
Well-intentioned, certainly, but do they ever really work? Does anything really change?
No. That is, not unless someone gets brave and foolhardy and actually starts a new school – one that’s free of past history and maybe even of diocesan bureaucracy and can just teach kids, teach them well, and may even be as close as the parent’s own home. Unless someone breaks free of concerns about structure, listens to the Spirit, and starts an evangelization apostolate – through television, through the Internet, through vibrant speakers and printed materials – that bring out the power and truth of Catholicism in a way that office-bound, bureaucratically-minded offices just can’t do.
If this seems a bit radical or dangerous to you, look back to church history and those saints I started talking about at the beginning of this column. The good that all of them were able to do was accomplished through breaking through the torpor of the present and its myopic, fearful keepers: starting new religious orders, implementing new ways of educating children, envisioning new ways of spreading the Gospel, and, through the power of God, bracing themselves, enduring the criticism (and worse) and just getting it done, saints fashioning brand-new wineskins for the new wine poured out by Christ.