"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1). As the lector read that line I thought about the influence of the saints in my conversion to the Catholic Church.
It wasn't a direct influence mind you. I didn't hear the voice of Bede or see visions of Padre Pio, but during my investigation of the Catholic Church I began to appreciate how the Church had produced these most powerful witnesses of the faith.
It is interesting that in my former tradition (Episcopal) and other more traditional Protestant denominations, our churches were often named for a Catholic saint. It is not uncommon to run across Episcopal Churches with names such as "St. Bede's", "St. Barnabas'", "St. Bartholomew's" or "St. Francis'", not to mention the most ironic name for a non-Catholic church, "St. Augustine's." It finally dawned on me that the Anglican/Episcopal Church was not responsible for producing any of these saints — nor were many of these congregations interested in emulating the theology of their patrons.
Jesus told his followers, "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers" (Luke 6:43-44). This verse hit home for me and I began to consider and compare the fruit I saw being produced in my own denomination. Were we producing saints? As a church body (denomination) could we say that we were serving as a school for saintliness? Sadly, the answer was no.
If we look at just the 20th Century, we find quite a list of impressive figures given to the world by the Catholic Church. What a witness the world was given by the lives of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Maximillian Kolbe, Josemaria Escriva, and Edith Stein among others.
While I had known some very faithful Episcopalians, it was usually a bit of a pleasant surprise to find them. There was always a sense that these people were going against the general direction of their own church. They were sort of like flowers trying to grow in soil that isn't providing very well for them. They may grow, but that growth and health will always be tempered by their environment.
I realize Protestants are fond of pointing out that we're all saints — that by our relationship in Christ we should all be called "saints." That is very comforting, but not very accurate. It is using the term loosely to say the least. I'm not a saint in the same sense that Padre Pio was. Nor am I mature enough in my faith to think I've grown in holiness to the same degree as Mother Teresa. The term "saint" should remind us of the ideal to which we are called — not offer blasé notions that we're already there.
Saints display "saintliness". They display devotion and holiness that comes from a deep love for Christ and they inspire others to do the same. Saints have often undergone great testing and trials and some even die for their faith. The question that kept haunting me is, "Why do I see so few of these examples in my own denomination?"
I thought again of the Luke quote, that a bad tree doesn't bear good fruit. The fruit that I saw being borne by the Catholic Church was much greater on the whole than that which I saw being produced anywhere else. There are no blinders here. I knew that it wasn't a perfect place and that there had been plenty of tragedies and problems in the Catholic Church. But on the whole, never in the history of the Church has the world been left without Catholic saints. The problems are aberrations; the normative fruit was a harvest of saints.
I was forced to ask, "What kind of fruit seems normative in my denomination?" My answer was not encouraging.
As I looked at the lives of the saints both recent and ancient, I began to consider the Catholic Church and her teachings more fully. What produced such people Pope John Paul II, St. Francis, Blessed Josemaria Escriva, St. Augustine, and St. Teresa of Avila? Whatever and wherever it was, I wanted to be a part of it. In the end, this 'cloud of witnesses' helped lead me home. While I am doubtful of my ability to attain their degree of saintliness, I am grateful to be planted in the same soil in which they are planted. It's home.