What I Have Seen and Heard
Published: August 2, 2012
People frequently ask me how I go about choosing a topic for this column. I have to tell them that I try to ponder the events that I have shared with people in my service as Archbishop and what faith lessons that I manage to learn from those encounters and what faith instructions that I can then share with the rest of you. These usually provide the source of my thoughts for this column. Even when I am unwinding, I sometimes discover those moments.
One such occasion occurred at a parish church in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this past July where I was attending Sunday Mass along with several hundred other vacationers when, at the sign of peace, the couple in front of me turned around and almost gasped in disbelief as their Archbishop was in the pew behind them. Parishioners from St. Brigid’s in Johns Creek on vacation, they were headed north to visit their grandchildren. After Mass, we were gathered along with another family who attended that same Mass—this one from St. Lawrence in Lawrenceville who were also on vacation. They were alerted to the presence of the Archbishop by their son who had just been confirmed a few weeks before by that man in a front pew in shorts and flip-flops.
I was delighted to see some of our people on vacation and to have them encounter me in a similar situation. I was most pleased to have been discovered in church by this teenage son. It was a good lesson for him to know that the Archbishop not only encourages his people to attend Sunday Mass each week—but he does so himself even when he’s on vacation.
As adults we all know that the best lessons are always those that we both teach and practice. Sunday Mass brings the Church together as a family—it fashions us as a people—it renews us no matter where we might be. Even when we are away from home, attending Sunday Mass reminds us of our identity as God’s people.
Later in July, I went to Chicago to offer testimony in the beatification procedures that are taking place for the cause of Augustus Tolton, the first African-American Catholic priest to serve in the United States. Father Tolton worked in Chicago and died at the age of 43 of a heat stroke in 1897—50 years before I was born.
Although I never knew him personally, some of the elderly parishioners at St. Elizabeth’s Parish on the south side of Chicago remembered people who did know him. St. Elizabeth’s is a development from St. Monica’s Parish, where he once served and which was in my region when I was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago.
As part of the beatification process, I gave sworn testimony before two priest auditors and a professional stenographer who recorded all of my statements for the official dossier that will eventually be submitted to the Congregation for Saints in Rome.
I had never provided such a formal ecclesiastical deposition before. Yet when I began to reflect on the questions that were asked—“What have you ever heard about Father Tolton’s holiness of life? Did you ever hear people speak of his extraordinary sanctity?”—I realized that we probably have all encountered saints in our own lives—directly or indirectly. They are the relatives—parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses and even children—who respond to God’s grace in extraordinary ways. Then there are the people who enter our lives as neighbors, work colleagues, and treasured friends who are genuinely holy men and women. Most of them will not become the focus of a formal sainthood process, but they inspire us nonetheless with their deep sanctity and love of God and neighbor. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2013) reminds us all: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” All are called to holiness.
We are all called to be saints—it’s just that some of us do a much better job at responding to that call and the Church holds them up as models to encourage the rest of us!