November is a time when we pray in thanksgiving for all those saints who though imperfect and not formally raised up by the Church sought to live holy lives. We also remember all those who have died, who are missed and honored because they have touched our lives. We remain one with them through the communion of the saints.
One definition of saints I appreciate is that they were ordinary persons who lived ordinary lives in an ordinary Christian way. The fact that they are viewed as extraordinary is because so few of us live in the ordinary Christian way.
Like us all there are certain declared saints that have influenced me, including St. Thomas More, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. John Paul II. All three witnessed to the faith, a deep personal relationship with Jesus and love for His Church with humility, courage, and perseverance. They inspire me still.
Yet, I have been contemplating those ‘all saints’ who have directly touched and influenced my own faith journey. Let me name a few.
Hubert and Isabel Shawcross were my maternal grandparents who when they could have eased into retirement became caregivers of my five brothers and sisters and me after my parents were divorced in the aftermath of World War II. Those years were not easy ones for a 7 year old kid thrust into the uncertainty of growing up without parents regularly present. The impact of divorce on children ought not to be minimized. The impact cannot be ameliorated by legal agreements. I thank God that we were raised in an environment which was not without its tensions but had a stability that helped me during a difficult time.
Miss Olmstead was my junior high English teacher. I do not recall her first name. What I do recall is her having us regularly stand at a blackboard, chalk in hand and diagram sentences, identifying the proper role of nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs to learn with precision the basics of what is required to communicate clearly. It was from that often tedious form of study that I learned the beauty of language and the power of the written word. My guess is that the widespread acceptance of writing in 140 strophes without concern for grammar or spelling on Twitter would have disappointed her.
When I served in Vietnam as an air intelligence officer we shared an office with the South Vietnamese. They were at one end of the room and we Americans were at the other end. Contact was formal. I celebrated my birthday in the office and invited the Vietnamese to share in it which stunned a few. They graciously did and I became friends with the Vinh family. What moved me was that this family of husband, wife and two small boys were practicing Catholics and the parents’ resolve to do what they could to ensure that the boys would be able to practice the faith. It was a witness that stayed with me on my conversion journey.
Lee Sherman Dreyfus was the governor of Wisconsin I was privileged to serve as legal counsel and director of policy. He had a delightful sense of humor and a deep perspective about what was really important, which have guided me ever since I volunteered in his campaign. He was not a professional politician but ran for governor after serving as president of a state university.
He taught and witnessed to insightful principles of dealing with the challenges that come to all of us. Among the lessons I learned from him was not what he accomplished in office but how he approached the tough times. He recalled the advice received from his father: when you get worked up about something ask yourself whether twenty years from now will this be important? Few things meet that standard. Salvation however does.
The second insight was from his service in World War II. He said that war with all its loss and destruction, which I could relate to, was a 10. Nothing since has been more than a 2. Perspective is important.
Father Paul Gilmartin, S.J. was a professor of spirituality and my spiritual director at now Saint John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts. He was a gentle and wise man who loved the Church and helping seminarians, especially late bloomers like me. I also remember how tough he was in grading our exams.
What I remember most though is how attentive he was to each person, encouraging us by noting the little things as well as helping discern the more serious ones. I recall when being unschooled in Catholic practices it was my turn to lead the daily office or prayer of the Church. One petition provided for the insertion of the local bishop by name. I was not sure what bishop I should name and so inserted Bishop Cletus O’Donnell who was not the local bishop but the bishop of the diocese of Madison for which I was studying. Other seminarians looked at me with expressions of shock. Father Gilmartin quietly took me aside and taught me the importance of protocol in the Church, which has served me well ever since.
Mark Musolf was a good friend of mine who hired me into his law firm fresh from school. He loved the environment and music. He sang in the choir at his Lutheran Church. He taught me that solo performances are not life giving and that God’s creation is ours to preserve as well as to enjoy. In a choir each person has his or her role to play. It is only as a team with a common purpose that beauty and joy can be achieved. He died in an auto accident on the icy roads of Wisconsin driving home to practice for a Christmas concert. I miss him as a friend and mentor.
Pope John Paul I served only a month as Vicar of Christ before he passed away. This was a time of serious discernment in my life. He has been called the smiling pope. He encouraged me to see the Church in both her human and divine realities. His smile enhanced by this warm eyes and wrinkled skin reassured me that the Church with all its problems and failings, reflected in we fallen men and woman, is still Christ’s. He reminded me that she had survived the hard times for centuries and was welcoming even to me despite my sketchy background. His image of the Church weathered yet optimistic opened me to the conversion journey that led me to the privilege of serving as priest and bishop.
These are a few of the ‘all saints’ in my life, imperfect yet faithful. Perhaps you might reflect this month on the saints who have touched your lives.
Collect for All Saints Day: “Almighty ever-living God, by whose gift we venerate in one celebration the merits of all the Saints, bestow on us, we pray, through the prayers of so many intercessors, an abundance of the reconciliation with you for which we earnestly long. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.