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Accidental Saints



“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

–Isaiah 43:19


This has been a season of holy days and historical commemorations for faith communities across the world. Our Jewish neighbors just concluded the High Holy Days, the solemn period from the Jewish new year on Rosh Hashanah to the introspection of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the celebratory time of Simchat Torah, marking the receiving of the law. In the Roman Catholic Church, the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council was marked yesterday, along with the feast day of Pope John XXIII, who convened it. Vatican II marked a major shift in the way that the Church related to other faith communities and the modern world, beginning a process that would lead many Christians to acknowledge and repent for the harms and oppression perpetuated against Jews and those in other faith traditions.


Good Pope John, as he was known, grew up poor, the eldest of 13 children in a sharecropping family in rural Italy. His humble origins kept him more grounded than many in the church hierarchy, and gave him an appreciation for humor and simplicity. When he unexpectedly announced the convening of a church-wide council to, as he put it, “throw open the windows of the church to let in fresh air,” a Vatican official told him that it was absolutely impossible to convene a council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” he replied. And he did. On another occasion, when asked by a reporter how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied, “about half of them.”


The Council, which Pope John did not live to see complete its work, was significant for many things, including a completely revised liturgy and a new lectionary, which became the basis for the lectionary of scripture readings that we often use at Friends Church. The Council also sought to reach out to Jews and other non-Christian religious traditions, beginning the process of acknowledging past harms and reaching out in friendship to other traditions. Pope John was no stranger to this work; during World War II, he had worked to save hundreds of Jewish refugees from deportation, and supported the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. For his efforts to save Jews, petitions have been made to the Yad Vashem center in Israel to name him as “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor bestowed on non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.


“See, I am doing a new thing,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. I’ve often wondered what gave people like Pope John, who came from such deeply traditional backgrounds, the faith and courage to see and embrace the new things God is doing in the world. I like to think that I’m open to the new things God is up to in the world today; but I know that I sometimes fail to see them. Cultivating humility helps to keep me open, and I think that’s the place for all of us to start. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians that we are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”


Early in his priestly ministry, Pope John gave a lecture at a seminary about what it means to be a saint. In his lecture, he said that we “tend to make saints larger than life, more like figures in a movie or novel than like your neighbors down the street. Saintliness actually results from learning the art of self-giving love. It flows from dying to self, from laughing at one's own foibles and humbly enduring the foibles of others. Saints aren't so much superstars of holiness as humble sinners, ready to allow God to love them just as they are.”


Today, I’m grateful for all those who are helping us to see the new thing God is doing; all those accidental saints who show us the way into God’s kin-dom, with humor, with humility, and with love.


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