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World Youth Day: Patrons

Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Here is an edited version of a talk given by Br Gregory Pearson during the English Dominicans' pilgrimage to Madrid for World Youth Day:

When I first discovered there were ten patrons of World Youth Day to talk about in ten minutes, I did wonder how I was going to fit them all in any kind of detail, so I decided I’d have to talk about them as a group. But that then got me wondering: what do they have in common? Why these ten?

There are probably lots of ways you could approach this, but the one that struck me was the “concreteness” of holiness: it’s not just some nice but abstract idea “out there”, but a quality of real people with a real history – and, I suppose you could say, a real geography. I say geography because all these patrons of World Youth Day – with one very obvious exception in the person of Blessed John Paul II – have some connection with Spain. They remind us of the complicated history of Christianity in this country over the last two thousand years: we see this, for example, in the poverty and simplicity of St Isidore the Worker, forced to flee from his birthplace in Madrid because of an Arab invasion in the late 11th century, but also, from a very different point of view, in the great missionary spirit of St Francis Xavier, following Spanish explorers and colonists to the Far East. The roots of Christianity in Spain go back to the very earliest days of the Church – some people even think that St Paul himself preached here – and it is that same faith that St Paul preached which we see lived out in the life of every one of these saints.

Because, you see, that’s the really significant thing about all these saints and blessed: the point is that, in all the particularities of their lives – different times, different places, very different kinds of life – they point us to the same thing – or rather, person, the person of Jesus Christ. Because that, after all, is what makes them saints – again not some abstract concept but a relationship, a relationship with a real person. But the thing is, that real person is the Son of God, and the relationship to which he invites each of us is one which enables us to share in the life of God himself. That’s what we mean when we talk about grace – the grace we received in our baptism, the gift of a share in God’s own life. We call it sanctifying grace – in other words, grace which makes us holy: the life of God which gives a whole new significance to our ordinary, everyday lives.

And it’s just that – the flourishing of grace in people’s ordinary lives – that we celebrate in the lives of the Saints. That’s why we commemorate Saints in our prayer and worship: we don’t worship them (after all, the Bible tells us often enough that only God is to be worshipped), but in their lives we see the working of that God whom alone we worship.

And in the lives of these patrons of World Youth Day we see the transforming power of God’s grace working in all sorts of different ways: there’s the dramatic call to a complete change of lifestyle for St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, but there’s also the simple, lifelong fidelity of St Maria of the Head, the wife of St Isidore the Worker, mentioned earlier. There are the great mystics like St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and our own Dominican, St Rose of Lima (who also reminds us that it was the Spanish who brought Christianity to the Americas) – but in all of their cases, we shouldn’t forget that these mystics didn’t just go off onto some other plane: rather, their union with God in prayer gave them the strength to serve the poor and sick, in the case of St Rose, or to engage in the very tricky business of reforming the Carmelite Order, in the case of St John and St Teresa. We see God’s grace, too, in the perseverance and fidelity with which St John of Avila, a great supporter of St Ignatius, bore the illness which prevented him from becoming a Jesuit himself; that same strength in the face of illness is seen too in the life of St Rafael Arnaiz, who suffered from acute diabetes and died in 1938 at the age of only twenty-seven, but nevertheless remained faithful to the austere Trappist life to which he believed the Lord had called him. And, of course, even all of these examples are not the only ways God’s grace works in human lives, but they do give us a picture of the many different ways in which that divine life which we have been given in baptism can work itself out and truly flourish.

And so, I suppose, getting back to my original question of what do these ten have in common, the simple answer is they’re all Spanish, except John Paul II, who started World Youth Day. Of course, there is something deeper as well, but that simple answer does actually point to it – because these facts remind us, who are here in Spain, at World Youth Day, of the reality of holiness, here and now; the examples of these saints and blessed is given to us to remind us too, here and now, of the gift of sanctifying grace which we received at our baptism: the life of God which, if we only let it, will make saints of us too.

Gregory Pearson OP


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