Being Catholic means many things to different people — ritual, tradition, care for people who are poor and reading the signs of the times in light of the Gospel. We may choose to emphasize certain aspects of what it means to be Catholic, but they are each integral pieces of the whole. Our shared experience as people on the journey stretches over centuries, across continents and beyond divisions. God is bigger than it all, and we are invited to participate in that bigness as God’s people.
When we come together, we draw upon a rich heritage of ritual that helps us to touch the holy in our midst. Each of us is then sent to go in peace to live the Gospel in our daily lives. Sometimes this is relatively easy. Other times we stumble and fall, but as I observed in an earlier column: “We are called to a lifelong path of growth through, not in spite of, our stumbling.”
Perhaps that is why I am so drawn to one particular aspect of our Catholic tradition — the communion of saints. Here we have real men and women who sought to be faithful disciples of Jesus in their time. The church names some of them Saints, with a capital "S," which implies that they were fairly successful in their pursuit and serve as models to the church. But they were also human, and most of their stories include quite a bit of stumbling, if you know where to look. This too makes them models of holiness.
November of course is a special time to remember those who have gone before, not only those we have canonized but all the faithful departed, including those we have known and loved as their stumbling moments met ours. Their lives on Earth may have ended, but they live on in memory and, in some mysterious way, they are present among us today as we face the future in gratitude and hope.
My mother passed away 12 years ago this October, close to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I was living in Oregon, where this time of year the nights are longer, the mist rises, and the rains are more frequent between the sunbreaks. There is a certain thickness about, but paradoxically in my experience it can also make the ordinary places we inhabit into thin spaces. In Celtic spirituality, a thin space is one where the line between heaven and Earth, this world and the next, and the visible and invisible becomes blurred. I suppose my own experience of thin space that first November could have been caused by the darkness and mist, or it could have simply been my grief. As theologian Peter Gomes observes, “perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.” In any case, my mother was very present to me then in a new way I could never have imagined until I experienced it.
In the years since I have said goodbye to many people that I have loved, most of them members of my religious community. This is an unavoidable part of the human condition and has always been a part of religious life. However, given the present demographic reality in most communities, younger Catholic sisters today have both an unusual opportunity to develop intergenerational friendships and regular experience in learning how to say goodbye. Our memory of our elder sisters may not be as long as those who lived community with them for 50 years, but it can be just as deep and a tremendous gift for our present and our future.
There is great wisdom in our Catholic tradition of setting aside time in the liturgical year to remember all the saints and souls, just as we take time to remember and celebrate the impact of our loved ones upon their passing. As theologian Flora Keshgegian writes in Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation, remembering is meant to be oriented to “affect present action” (p. 25). We do not remember to stay in the past. Rather, we remember for the present, and dare I say, for the future.
I recently ran across some archival materials from my congregation’s centenary celebration in 1984. The Congregation Leader at the time, Sr. Patricia Lynch, proclaimed the year to be a time of “remembering, renewing, and risking.” She called the community to remember God’s goodness, our founding spirit, early sisters, growth in ministry and renewal after the Second Vatican Council. She encouraged them to renew their commitment to the needs of the future, even as she challenged them to take risks. “We risk, not to be foolhardy, but because we live in the memory that our God is a God who takes risks. If Jesus could risk his life for us, what risk are we prepared to take?”
Sister Patricia is now a part of the communion of saints herself and someone I never had a chance to know. Yet finding her words was another example of thin space which connected me, from my present position as a newer member on our current congregation leadership team, with both our past and our future.
Colleen Gibson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, believes that we are at a critical time in our world, our church, and our congregations: “We find ourselves in a liminal space, where change is pressing in and new life is imminent. . . . Here in this liminal space, the next and the now are in coexistence. Each one is reliant on the other. Today is lived in hope of tomorrow, and tomorrow cannot be without faithful living today.”
I must say that I agree. And yet, in this thin space of November, and having recently said goodbye to a dear friend and sister mentor who died at the age of 95, I also realize that the hopeful shoots for the future we nurture today are rooted in where we have been together. The generation of sisters who took risks to meet the unmet needs of changing times in response to Vatican II is passing, and yet we who are living religious life now are blessed to rub shoulders with them, to learn from them, and to love them. While I wish they would be walking further into the future with us, I know they will be with us on the journey in ways we cannot fathom. We will remember, renew, and risk. What better way is there to participate in the bigness of God?
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]