One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Hans Urs Von Balthazar, in his book on the significance of St. Therese of Lisieux to the Church makes a distinction between a saint who has merely local importance and one who has an ecclesial importance. Take, for example, St. Francis Cabrini: the first naturalized citizen of the United States who worked so tirelessly for the needs of the immigrant community in our country. She was clearly a saint and very significant in our history, but there is little real devotion to her in Asia or Africa or even in most parts of Europe. She is a local saint.
An ecclesial saint has significance for the whole Church throughout the world. A good example of this is St. Francis of Assisi. What St. Francis stood for was true and important for all of humanity: the poverty or simplicity to which every Christian is called. It is the way of the Incarnation, the Word ‘making Himself empty’ of his divinity (in Greek: Kenosis), giving Himself to a process of diminishment even to death, death on a cross (Philippians).
It had a particular resonance for that age since it was the precursor of the Renaissance and the expansion of the material sector of people’s lives. God was sending a message to that time of the importance of the pathway of simplicity. It was also a spiritual message that still has validity to this present day. The ecclesial nature of the sanctity of St. Francis is seen in the universality of his message especially in modern ecological concerns.
Is there, therefore, a saint or saints that speak to the modern world with a particular message that is both urgent and universal?
I think there have been two saints that have left a permanent mark on our age and to whom the world needs to listen deeply. They are St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II. St. Teresa is from the more ‘charismatic’ and ‘prophetic’ wing of the Church and St. John Paul from the more ‘institutional’ side.
Mother Teresa began her religious life in a very traditional way in a very traditional order: the Sisters of Loreto. She was a teacher and a very good one at that. However, she then felt a ‘call within a call’ when she saw the extreme poverty of Calcutta. After receiving permission from the institutional church, she ventured out of the convent into the streets of this foreign city, dressed in a sari, the traditional Indian dress for women. Besides being an act of courage and traditional sanctity (many saints have helped the poor), it speaks to us especially in our age because of the global nature of the action. She entered a completely different culture and began to pick up the dying that had simply been discarded onto the streets of that city. She went to the garbage heaps of Calcutta to rescue the still-breathing fetuses thrown away after abortions. She spoke of the ‘poorest of the poor’ and made that phrase a common category of concern of the age. Now with television and the other modern forms of communication we are truly one city. The poor are all around us and we can no longer pretend we do not see the enormity of the problem. In her worldwide vision, she says to us today: you cannot be a Christian or even truly human if you ignore the reality of the vast poverty in our world. Her ecclesial witness forever links sanctity and the alleviation of poverty.
Likewise, but in a very different way, St. John Paul II spoke his indispensable message to the world: the spiritual, intellectual and moral coherence of the Christian Gospel for all humanity. In his writing and in his worldwide vision, he witnessed to the unity of the Gospel perspective and the irreplaceability of its summons to every human being on earth. He visited more places on earth and spoke to more people in person than any Pope in memory. He called together all religions on earth to Assisi to pray; and at his funeral, every nation, every perspective, every religion was present. He was the world face of Christianity that says that a Christian cannot be saintly until he or she is engaged with the entire world. This global Christian perspective must be ours even in the humble specificity of the urban parish church, in the hermit’s daily sacrifices and even in the unbeliever of good will.
In both the global concern for the poor and their suffering, as well as the liberating message of the gospel that transcends all earthly divisions, we see the giftedness of St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II as truly ecclesial saints for the modern world.