In Mark’s gospel today (Mark 6,7-13) Jesus instructs his disciples as he sends them out on their mission.He tells them to travel light and stay where they find themselves. They can be his ministers if they live in their own time and place. That’s also the definition of a saint: someone who lives fully in their own time and place.
My own community, the Passionists, is a small and relatively new community in the Roman Catholic Church, but we have a large number of canonized saints and members proposed for canonization. Beginning with our founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who died in 1774, each generation of Passionists has produced men and women recognized for their holiness.
We’re hoping Father Theodore Foley who died in 1974 may join the ranks of Passionist saints such as Paul of the Cross, Vincent Strambi, Gabriel Possenti, Dominic Barberi, Gemma Galgani, Charles Houben, Isidore DeLoor and Eugene Bossilkov.
Saints are God’s answer to the poison of their times, and so it’s important to see them in the light of the poison they oppose. Saints are firm believers in church teaching and examples of heroic virtue, but they’re powerful figures who oppose the poisonous influences threatening the world in which they live. They’re signs of God’s power in a sinful world and God marks them out as saints through miracles performed through their intercession.
For example, St. Paul of the Cross was an antidote to the forgetfulness of the passion of Jesus which followed the Enlightenment, a 17th century movement that denied or minimized the role of faith and religion in human life. We’re still feeling the effects of the Enlightenment today.
St. Vincent Strambi opposed the Enlightenment as it was expressed in the political schemes of Napolean Bonaparte, who tried to subordinate religion to his own dreams of European domination. Vincent was a brave Italian bishop who resisted the emperor and then suffered for it. Like him, the Bulgarian Bishop Eugene Bossilkov suffered and died under an oppressive Communist government in Bulgaria in the 20th century.
Gabriel Possenti resisted the lure of the Enlightenment in the 19th century. As a young man, he chose religious life rather than the inflated promises of success that tempted so many of his contemporaries.
Saints like Gemma, Isidore de Loor, Charles Houben seem to be people who fit St. Paul’s description of those called by God. They were not wise by human standards, they don’t have a lot of human power, they’re not of noble birth. They’re “the weak of the world God chooses to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1, 23-28)
Our Passionist saints tend to be ordinary people, of no special note, easily unnoticed and misunderstood, subject to the sufferings, disappointments and failures that come in life. God chooses them to be signs that he does not abandon people like them and, in fact, can do great things through them. Charles Houben was a healer. Gemma bore the signs of Jesus’ passion in her body.
It takes awhile to know saints like these. That may be because we often don’t understand our own times and the poison afflicting it.