In 1985, Father Mary Jenco, a Servite priest was taken hostage in Beirut and held for 19 months, suffering gravely at the hands of a Shiite group. After his return, he traveled around the country speaking of his experiences and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ’s forgiveness of enemies.
One of his many stories of survival and struggle was his tale of the Litany of the Saints. Naturally Father Jenco had no books in captivity so he prayed his prayers from memory. One prayer that kept him company was his Litany of Saints. He relayed how he prayed to some of his favorite saints and also to holy people he knew who had died, beginning with his grandmother. Father Jenco used to encourage his listeners to find their own Litany of Saints.
These thoughts come to mind when reading Pope Francis latest letter, Gaudete and Exultate, Rejoice and Be Glad. Pope Francis begins by writing about the “saints next door.” He is talking about the holiness present in God’s people: “in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.”
Pope Francis recognizes holiness “found in our next door neighbor, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.” He calls them “the middle class of holiness.”
Father Jenco and Pope Francis are saying the same thing. Living one’s life fully has nothing to do with status or popularity. The Litany of Saints who influence and change the world are those people known mostly to only a very small circle of people. “The most decisive turning points in history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions.” In the histories written during Jesus’ lifetime, no historian mentioned Jesus.
The call from God is to be holy “by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do.” Every person is “a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the gospel.” Pope Francis is not saying that we have a mission but that we are a mission.
Of course we know the mission — to love as we are loved. We do this in the most ordinary of ways on the most ordinary of days. A little six year old girl called to another teacher down the school hall that she was the “helper of the day.” Her delight sprang out of her. She was the mission of Christ for her class and her teacher that day. It’s as simple as that and as profound. She is learning how to be a saint and one day someone else will include her in their own Litany of the Saints.
Sister Patricia McCarthy currently teaches Math at a Catholic School. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.