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Historia Ecclesiastica

Sandal Blisters

A meditation on the family.


Captain Wojtyła, his son Lolek recalls, was a man “of constant prayer”: an attentive and openly devout father who prayed the rosary with his young son and took him on pilgrimage the year after the boy’s mother, Emilia, died. It was his father’s faith that inspired Lolek to pursue a call to the priesthood. Though the two of them never spoke openly of the possibility of Lolek’s vocation, Lolek tell us that “his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.” These reminiscences can be found in Lolek’s book Gift and Mystery, published under the name by which he is perhaps better known, Pope John Paul II. The cause for canonization of Karol Wojtyła, Sr., and his wife Emilia opened in May of last year, six years after the canonization of their son the pope. “The Wojtyłas,” Father Paweł Rytel-Andrianik of the Polish Bishops Conference has said, “were able to create such an atmosphere at home and form children in such a way that they became outstanding people.” 

Much as each age gets the politicians it deserves, each generation of the Church, more happily, gets the saints it needs. The example of the Wojtyłas is a timely reminder to the Body of Christ that if it is true that the glory of God is a human being fully alive, then saints are formed just as human beings are formed: within the community of love we call the family. 

After all, God sent His only-begotten Son, if I may reverse the order of John 3:16, because He so loved the world. The easiest—and perhaps most appealing—reading of this verse is as a simple statement of the magnitude of God’s love, its unthinkable quantity. But the Greek phrase which it translates, houtos egapesen, does not in fact refer to magnitude or quantity of love, but manner. In other words, it does not mean God loved us so much, but in this particular way: a Son-shaped way, a Christ-shaped way. Everything in Christ’s incarnate life—from the swaddling clothes of His birth to the vinegar of His Passion, as the catechism puts it—speaks to us of the particular contours of the revelation of divine love. It is love, as we know, which goes to Calvary with a crown of thorns; but it is also love which grows in patience and diligence in Joseph’s workshop, which learns the Psalms on Mary’s knee. It is love which loves in a particular way.

Of course, the fact that the Incarnate Son grew in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man, in the slow unfolding of a family life in Nazareth—a child’s life of meals, prayers, chores—is not some incomprehensible divine bolt-on to Christ’s humanity, a mysterious eruption of God’s will into the operations of the natural order. It is simply that natural order most fully and completely at work. Human beings do not happen all at once in isolation; they are slowly, gradually nurtured—at least normatively—within a human family. In the sending of His Son, the loving of humanity in this particular way, God has done more than simply tolerate this as a quirk of our human nature. Instead, He has taken that love of the human family, sanctified it, ordered it to Himself, and then offered it back to us as a means to beatitude. Family life has always been the way in which human beings become themselves. Now, through the Incarnation, it is how they become like God. 

The cause of the Wojtyłas reminds us that the economy of salvation, by a free and fitting choice of God, unfolds within human history through a far less mysterious economy. We’re all familiar with the idea that the family is a domestic Church; it’s one of those catechism phrases, like “source and summit,” that rings a bell even if we can’t quite give the exact paragraph number. But it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the transmission of sanctity within this domestic Church is not one-way or top-down. Parents teach and instruct their children in the way of holiness, yes, but their children—perhaps less explicitly and didactically—return the favor. As the catechism puts it, “Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God,” and their children in turn “contribute to the growth in holiness of their parents.’ 

The sanctifying effect of the human family is a two-way street. What this suggests is that wherever we find a holy child, there may well be holy parents right behind. From this perspective, it’s not entirely surprising that ecclesial investigation has revealed that the parents of Saint John Paul II were not, in fact, bitter, shrunken-hearted Christmas-and-Easter communicants. What is perhaps surprising is that they are only the second married couple in the history of the Church to share a joint cause. The trail was blazed earlier this century by Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who were canonized in 2015. In his canonization homily, Pope Francis remarked that in their married life, Louis and Zélie “practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters.” Thérèse herself simply said, “God gave me parents more suited for heaven than this earth.”

Not being a canon lawyer, I do not know whether the process of canonizing a saint is a daily experience of meditative Christian joy, though from my experience of Church bureaucracy I can hazard a guess. From the outside, however, there’s certainly something spiritually edifying in observing not simply a cause, but a jointcause unfold. Just as the vocations of these two couples, the Wojtyłas and the Martins, were conjoined in their earthly lives, so too is the recognition that their shared calling has reached its fulfilment in the eternal life of beatitude. The fact that their beloved children are honored alongside them in the General Calendar is yet another entirely fitting homage to the grace-given power of their domestic Church to become what God had ordained it to be: a school of sanctity. Because the Christian family does not exist to create a single Lolek Wojtyła or a single Thérèse Martin. It exists to create five saintly Wojtyłas, eleven saintly Martins: an entire community of saints. To use a musical analogy, it is an ensemble, not the accompaniment to a soloist. 

But this is not necessarily a truth that jumps out from a cursory glance at the General Calendar. When I have occasion to flick through the Calendar of Saints at the back of the breviary—for I am a consecrated religious and have swapped the secular ease of a Kindle app for a hard-copy breviary when praying my Divine Office, meaning I have no other way of sorting my feast-days from my ferias than my own ingenuity and ability to position ribbons—it’s striking that saints who are celebrated in groups are not married couples, but martyrs. One could easily get the impression that the human journey to sainthood finds its communal character first and foremost—or perhaps solely—in the context of persecution and brutality. 

I’ll stress here that to find this view of sainthood incomplete is not to dismiss or ignore the deep historical significance of martyrdom as a paradigmatic means to sanctity—or, indeed, its contemporary significance, particularly in the Middle East. But holiness, as Scripture attests, is found not only in blessed persecution but also in honoring thy father and mother. Before Christ loved even unto death, He loved and was loved as son and foster-son, nephew and cousin, as kin. Having not only one, but possibly two jointly-canonized married couples in the martyrology will, perhaps, help us to rediscover the truth that God, in Christ, loved in this particular way: communicating Himself to us in and through the human bonds of community, pre-eminently the natural family, in which we were all formed.

This view of sanctity—as a communal project which is realized as much in the gradual unfolding of our everyday lives with each other as it is in times of extraordinary suffering and adversity—is one we find in the earliest accounts of the Christian path to sainthood. In the Gospels, the way in which Christ calls men and women to be His followers is by calling them to be part of a community of followers. Before they received their eternal reward—usually, with the exception at least of John, through the red martyrdom—the disciples spent three years attending weddings and ignominious dinner parties, treating sandal blisters, and bickering over who was the greatest. It would, I suggest, be very strange if, following this long period of living and working together in common service to their Lord, it transpired that only Simon Peter, or Mary Magdalene, or Andrew had attained the beatific vision—with the other disciples having served merely as sanctifying background noise for one, lone hero.

The recent series The Chosen, which recounts the life of Christ from the perspective of his nascent band of disciples, captures this experience of following Our Lord in community: the shared times of crisis, mirth, and frustration, which become the catalyst for the silent and hidden mystery of interior conversion. At the Wedding of Cana, as their Lord stands over a line of stone jars filled with water and calls silently upon His heavenly Father, Thaddeus and Mary Magdalene sit contentedly on the ground in one corner of the wedding party and share stories of their lives before meeting Jesus. What were you, before you allowed love to change you? Thaddeus tells Mary that he had worked as a stonemason. “Once you make that first cut into the stone, it can’t be undone,” he says. “What used to be a shapeless block of limestone or granite begins its long journey of transformation and it will never be the same.” There are various ways one can read his words, coming as they do just before Christ raises His hands over the stone jars and transforms the water of the Old Law into His new wine. But they cannot help but speak of the process of transformation that Thaddeus and Mary, and all their fellow disciples, have embarked upon together, and talk of amongst each other with such touching gentleness and wonder. 

Saints, the Gospels tell us, are made in communities—communities that exist for the sanctification of all, not just the special one or two. Some of us are called to find this saint-making community in the consecrated life: professing the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Christ in a radical way. For the vast majority, however, our saint-making community will be of the kind where Christ Himself began His earthly life: the natural family. Its purpose will be not simply our sanctification, but the sanctification of all its members. 

In these strange times—for I live in England, where the word “strange” has become the new national euphemism for all things horrible, unsettling and frightening, replacing the word “interesting”—we have been confronted with the absolute impossibility of self-sufficiency in a way deeply shocking and, for many of us, entirely unprecedented. These times are an opportunity to deepen our natural ties, whether those ties are to our parents and siblings or our spouses and children, and to allow ourselves to become freshly dependent on, as well as—one hopes—more grateful for them. Perhaps, then, the designs of Providence have given us the Wojtyłas, and the Martins before them, to remind us that these natural ties are also our shared means to sanctity. We cannot live without one another, and we cannot become fully alive without one another; neither the natural nor the supernatural order requires us to go it alone. This is the truth which we discover in the Gospels, the story of a God who loves us in this particular way, and which, through the examples of holy spouses, will echo ever louder in the Communion of Saints.

Sister Carino Hodder is a Dominican Sister of Saint Joseph based in the New Forest in England.

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