Thinking about Saints

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.

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