I remember one day several years ago, being invited by a friend of mine who taught in a public school, to come in and speak about my life as a priest to her class of six year olds. I decided to make this a real spectacle, knowing that most of the students had never been to a Catholic church. So I put on all my vestments, and came into the classroom, waving clouds of incense and sprinkling holy water around. The reception I got was very gratifying: jaws dropped open, and eyes widened, and there were great gasps from the children.
My friend, the teacher, said: “Guess who this is, boys and girls?”
One stupefied little boy, put up his hand and said in an awe-filled voice: “Are you God?”
I had to say, “No, I am not God.”
Another asked “Are you an angel?”
Again, I had to say “No.”
Then a little girl asked “Are you a friend of God?”
And I felt on safer ground and was able to say “Yes, I am a friend of God. Not a very good one, I’m afraid, but a friend of God nonetheless.”
The book of Wisdom, in the Old Testament, says that the Spirit of God, “in every generation passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God” (7: 27). This is a description of what happens to us at our baptism. As we are baptized, the Holy Spirit of God passes into us and changes us into children of God. We become “holy souls” and also God’s “friends.”. In other words, we become “saints”, saints with a small s, to distinguish us from the canonized saints in heaven, such as St Francis, St Therese of Lisieux, Saint John Paul II and so on, whom we describe as Saints, with a capital S. The difference between them and us is that their lives of holiness on earth have been officially recognized and declared by the Church . But they are still, in essence, our brothers and sisters, and their example inspires us to become as they are. That is why we ask every young person who is going to be confirmed, to choose a Saint’s name for their confirmation, and have them find out as much as they can about that particular Saint, and even carry that name on their stole when they are being confirmed . They are meant to make friends with that particular Saint, who is truly alive with God in heaven, to pray to them and ask their help as they seek to model their life on that of their chosen Saint. Not just for the day of their confirmation, and forever after, till they meet with that particular Saint as friends in heaven. How many of us still remember our confirmation Saint? How many of us still pray to them – or to any other saint, for that matter?
My confirmation Saint is John, after John the Baptist, but I also have several “patron” Saints, including Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Robert Bellarmine. Saint Augustine I chose because of his famous words in his autobiography, called Confessions, where he wrote: “Lord, make me chaste, make me pure, but, Lord, not just yet !” I recognize in those words one who was a fellow sufferer of temptations against purity, and if he managed to overcome them, then, with the help of his prayers, please God, I will too someday. I chose Saint Teresa because though she joined religious life as a nun at quite a young age, it took her several years, till she was nearly 40, before she really started taking a life of holiness, and spiritual perfection, seriously. So there is hope for me, that at any age, it is possible to start seriously the work of becoming holy as God is holy, as the Scriptures urge us to. Saint Francis de Sales encourages me, by his words and example, to be gentle in my dealings with others, fellow sinners especially, because, in his own words,
“You can attract more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a gallon of vinegar.”Saint Francis de Sales
And, of course, St Robert Bellarmine is whom I was named after.
One thing I love about the Catholic Church is its emphasis on Family. We have in God a Father, in Mary a spiritual Mother, in Jesus a Brother, and in those baptized Christians around us, any number of Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Anyone who was, as we say, an only child, can take comfort that in fact, in the Church, you have lots of spiritual siblings.
The Church speaks of itself as, “A Communion of Saints” and identifies three parts of that communion, or community. There is the Church Militant, those of us Christians who are still making our way through life on earth, the Church Suffering, those souls in Purgatory, and the Church Triumphant, those who are in heaven. But we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and friends, friends of God and of each other.
The book of Proverbs, in the Old Testament, says that, “some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (18:24). Friends are those who stick together, through thick and thin. As we say, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” We are indeed fortunate if we have such friends in our lives. I have a group of friends who have made a covenant , or promise, with each other, that we will pray for each other every day for God’s blessing in our lives. So every day I know that there are these six people praying for me, as well as many of you who have told me that you continue to pray for me, which matters a great deal to me, and I thank you, and take great comfort from knowing that I am not on my own, facing the troubles of this world by myself. Are there friends whom you pray for, brothers and sisters, or who are committed to praying for you?
The Saints in heaven are those who have proved themselves true friends of God, through thick and thin, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. We call them martyrs, men and women who have been killed because they refused to give up their faith in Jesus, despite threats, torture and death. These are those commemorated in our first reading today, those, “who have come through the great ordeal of persecution; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Jesus said, “Greater love has no one” to his disciples in John 15:13, “than to lay down their life for their friends. And you are my friends, if you do what I ask of you.” The Saints in heaven are those who have proved their friendship with Jesus, under the pressure of all that life on earth can throw at us. They may not be canonized or beatified, but we all know hidden saints, people in our lives who have inspired us by their faith, hope and love, and we know that they are with God in heaven. Which raises the questions:
How good a friend am I proving to be to Jesus, in this life?
Am I sticking with him through thick and thin, despite the mockery and insults and contempt that our professed faith may bring us at work, home, or wherever?
Remember, if the measure of a true friend is the willingness to lay down their life for us, what else can we say about Jesus as look at the cross and remember that he did this for me and you?