THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
by Joanna Manning
When Pope John Paul II came to Toronto in 1984, my son Nick was a student in Grade Seven at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, and was chosen to sing the Gospel acclamation at the papal Mass at Downsview. Because of the traffic restrictions in the city, he had to take the subway downtown to the Choir School early in the morning, and then board a special school bus for transportation to the north end of the city. An hour after he had departed, the phone rang. It was a desperate Nick, calling from Dundas St. Subway Station. "Mom" he gulped, almost sobbing into the phone, "I’ve left my jacket on the subway and I’m sure they won’t let me sing my solo without my proper uniform." Already nervous because of the exigencies of the performance, he was now verging on the hysterical at the thought of facing the principal and explaining why he had come to school without the proper uniform on such an auspicious occasion.
An inspiration popped into my mind. "Now you remember me talking to you about your Auntie Ethel," I said. (In the heyday of her career, my late aunt had sung with the Covent Garden Opera Company.) "I know she’s in heaven now. Because she was a singer she’ll understand the way you feel. You just say a little prayer to her and ask her to help you calm down," I continued, "and I’m sure something will work out." Little did I know at the time that Auntie Ethel’s reach was to extend beyond helping to calm the stage fright of a small singer. A St. Michael’s choirboy travelling back into downtown from the other end of the subway line sat in the very seat where Nick had left his jacket, and so brought it into the school in good time to reunite it with its owner. A small miracle? Perhaps it was just coincidence.
This incident came to my mind recently as I was meditating on the liturgy for November 1, the feast of All Saints. The feast of All Saints is designed to honour all those who have passed through the veil of time into eternity without the recognition afforded by canonization. The tenacity of Christian attachments to family and wider community that endures beyond death fulfils the yearning for what Elizabeth Johnson in her book Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints, describes as "the need for communities of memory and hope…the need for a common connected history, where the living look to the dead as a cloud of witnesses who encourage the community in the struggle to be faithful disciples." The supportive kinship afforded by memories of past family struggles can be an inspiration to persevere in the present. The power of such subversive memory, which goes way beyond what I was able to evoke for my son, has also supplied me with the energy to continue along many a difficult path.
My parents gave me a beautifully illustrated "Lives of the Saints" for my First Communion, and like many a Catholic child of that era I pored over the pages, entranced by the mystery and magic of the lives that unfolded within. But the process of official canonization by the church was and is overlaid with political overtones, and reflects the type of virtues that a male celibate clergy would like to inculcate in the faithful. Chastity and obedience to authority rank high on the list of saintly qualities, most recently exemplified in the sanctification of Jose Maria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. John Paul II, who went to pray at Escriva’s tomb immediately after his election as pope, altered the customary process of canonization to speed Escriva’s passage. The Pope removed the position known as the "devil’s advocate" thus ensuring that none of the unseemly details of Escriva’s materialism or misogyny would surface within the canonization process.
Johnson outlines a number of other questionable aspects of "sainting." The vast majority of those who have been officially raised to the altars by the church are male, European, upper class and clerics. The least represented are married women. "To be a sexually active woman," writes Johnson, "renders one almost incapable of embodying the sacred." Sexually active men fare little better: most of those who make it into the canon of sainthood are celibate or have renounced marriage for the monastery either before or after being widowed. But devotion to saints, the koinonia or community of God’s beloved, Johnson writes, does not mean putting the saints on a pedestal, as a kind of super-class of Christians. "If we understand relationship between the living and the dead embraced in God’s life to be structured along the companionship model," she argues, "then saints in heaven are not situated between believers and Christ in a hierarchy of patronage, but are with their companions on earth in one community of grace."
This bond of companionship with those who have gone before was activated for Nick in his hour of need. And my feisty, sexy, singer aunt continues to inspire and cheer us on as we, too, in the words of Paul, "race towards the finish line and that glorious prize of heavenly union" in the great community of God’s beloved ones.
Joanna Manning’s most recent book is Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and the Religious Right published by Crossroad in July. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.