I managed to forget that yesterday was Canada’s Thanksgiving Day. Possibly only our Canadian oblate and friends registered the lapse, and, being Canadians, forgave as soon as they noticed. Today the liturgical calendar gives us the memoria of Blessed John Henry Newman, the feast of St Denis of Paris (and his companions) and a lovely mish-mash of local devotions, depending on where one happens to be. I can cope with that, but it is also Libraries Week and I don’t know how many special ‘days for’ everything under the sun. It seems that the further we get from Christianity, the more we multiply our secular commemorations in an awkward kind of parallel liturgicalism. I am suffering from calendar overload, and possibly you are, too. Being asked to pray for whatever good (and sometimes not so good) cause has attracted a Twitter hashtag is one thing; being expected to order our priorities according to these newly-coined ‘days for’ is another. The Church, of course, was here long before our our secular counterparts with her adoption of saints and martyrs as patrons of this, that and the other. St Denis, for example, is patron saint of those suffering from frenzy, strife, headaches, and hydrophobia. Bl. John Henry is too recently beatified to have attracted official patronage of any except the Ordinariate, but I’m sure it won’t be long before he also has a string of causes to his name. It is perhaps perverse of me, but I find the older, liturgical commemorations, throwing as they do light on the concerns of our forebears, much more human and much less strident than the demands made on us by many of our contemporary ‘days’. Mind you, Libraries Week has definite appeal . . .
Today we celebrate the memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman. Unusually, his feastday is kept not on the date of his death but on the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism. That tells us something important about the way in which the Church views his life and work. The gradual development in Newman’s theological understanding is held up to us as a model to emulate but also, I think, as an encouragement. If we seek truth ardently, we shall be rewarded by an ever greater understanding.
On Sunday the pope declared two very different saints Doctors of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine nun, and John of Avila, the diocesan priest. In declaring them doctors, the pope was saying, in effect, here are two people on whose holiness of life and soundness of teaching you may rely. Very few saints are accorded that status in the Catholic Church, indeed only 35 to date.
I think all three saints share what we would today call a concern for evangelisation, for right teaching and fidelity to the mind of the Church. Hildegard was something of a polymath and pushed the boundaries of what was expected of a Benedictine nun. In her letters and her teaching she instructed many of the clergy. John of Avila, by contrast, is remembered chiefly for the personal holiness and zeal which informed his preaching and a book of advice addressed to a nun, Audi Filia. Hildegard’s missionary zeal spread out from the cloister; John’s flowed back in. And Newman? Newman is an interesting case of someone who wrote and spoke voluminously and probably did his greatest thinking about the Catholic Church and her mission as an Anglican. All three remind us that the saints of the Church do not conform to a single pattern; there is hope even for us, if we are prepared to make the sacrifice. The holiness of each one was rooted in the Cross of Christ and in the renunciation of self that discipleship demands. That isn’t a very fashionable doctrine, but it is a true one. Some things never change.