Ask the average church-goer what they think of the liturgical calendar and its saints of the day and one is likely to be met with some degree of bafflement. Everyone knows about the great seasons of the year, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, but individual feasts and memorias tend to pass by in a kind of holy fog unless an individual has a personal devotion to some saint or other. The very names can be difficult to pronounce; and as for their life-stories, the technical term ‘legend’ seems very apt, they read so weirdly at times. Oddities like Benedictines and medievalists may derive a lot from them, but most sane people simply ignore them, don’t they?
If they do, perhaps they shouldn’t. The litugical calendar focuses on different saints on different days which together build up a wonderful mosaic of ‘holy helpers’ — people just like us who have become truly holy, whose help we can ask and whose example we can, with due allowances for cultural and historical differences, emulate. Consider the three saints highlighted today and how they provide us with much to reflect on, pray about and do.
First of all there is one of my favourites, St Cuthman of Steyning, better known to many as the subject of Christopher Fry’s play, The Boy with the Cart. According to his legend, he first appears in history (back in the seventh century) drawing his aged mother along in a one-wheeled cart, taking some of the strain with a rope across his shoulder. Where the rope broke, Cuthman decided to build a church — but only after building a hut for his mother and himself. Many other tales accumulated around him but two features stand out: his devotion to prayer and his devotion to his mother. Today many people are faced with dilemmas about how best to care for elderly parents. Here we have someone who faced exactly the same problem and worked to resolve it. Surely he is an encouragement to anyone in the same predicament?
Next, consider St Josephine Bakhita, who died as recently as 1947. She was Sudanese. Her early life was, by any standards, horrific. She was kidnapped and sold into slavery from which she was eventually rescued by an Italian family who took her back to Italy with them. She became a Christian and ended her days as a Religious Sister, her life marked by forgiveness and wide charity. Her story reminds us that slavery still exists, that people-trafficking and exploitation are still evils to be combated; and that the role of individuals is not insignificant. Often we are tempted to think, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ But there is; and the welcome given by that Italian family stands in stark contrast to the isolationist tendencies we see all around us in Europe and America. We may not have as much to forgive as St Josephine Bakhita, but she challenges us to be more generous, more loving, no matter how cruel life may be.
My final saint of the day is St Jerome Emiliani, founder of the Clerks Regular of Somaschi. He lived in sixteenth century Venice, at a time when plague was killing off many people and the number of orphaned children increased dramatically. His response was eminently practical. In Venice, Verona, Bergamo, Brescia, Milan and many other parts of northern Italy, he built hospitals and orphanages with the help of local people and the group of priests he subsequently formed into an Order. He was tireless in giving aid and in persuading others to do the same. No one needs to be reminded that hunger and poverty still affect children more than adults. We have only to look at what is happening in Yemen to see that, although most social workers will tell us there is an alarming amount of child poverty here in the UK and the rich nations of the West. I think St Jerome Emiliani is a fine example of co-operation between clergy and laity in the service of the poor and vulnerable.
So, three saints from three different eras, all with something to teach us about love of God and our neighbour. They weren’t mere ‘do-gooders’ ; they weren’t just philanthropists. At the heart of all their activity was a deep union of prayer with Christ our Lord which gave them an insight and determination to do whatever was in their power to serve him. Buliding a church, caring for elderly parents, looking after the poor, forgiving the seemingly unforgivable, all these are part of what being a Christian can entail. The question for us today therefore is: what does God ask of me?