On our holiday in Italy in September we stayed for a few nights in Padua. It’s a lovely city, with arcaded streets, a large University (Europe’s oldest) and fine buildings. Just opposite our hotel was the great basilica of St Anthony of Padua, the Saint who has the reputation of restoring lost things! It’s vast, begun just after Anthony died in 1231. In the Middle Ages it was a great pilgrimages centre. It surprised us to discover that it still is. All day a steady stream of pilgrims – clearly from many countries – filed in silence past Anthony’s tomb, lovingly touching its hard, cold stone. Mass is celebrated every hour for large numbers. The atmosphere of devotion in the place was strong and moving.
November begins with saints: All Saints day on 1st November, then All Souls, and more remembrances after that. What are we to make of saints? At the reformation there was great disquiet about saints, a sense that they were not necessary. Our relationship to God and Christ does not really need anyone in the way. So Anglicans and reform Christians generally tend to find saints uncomfortable.
While all of that is true, there is also something we need to pause on here. One of the things I discovered about Anthony is how much more important he was than the “Saint for lost things” label he is saddled with. He came to Padua from Portugal, and like all early Franciscans he lived the life of the poor. In Padua he discovered that many people became poor because of the merciless treatment handed out by debt collectors. So he went to the highest legal body in the city and single handedly argued for a change in the law. And won! In part that was because he had a fine mind and was up to arguing with the experienced lawyers in the courts. But it was also to do with him, as a person. He was clearly attractively human. People sensed something special in him, something profound. And perhaps that brings us nearer to who a Saint might be.
The real definition of a Saint is that they are someone with whom God is in love, with whom God shares his own divine life. Sanctity is a matter of being loved. And that, of course, goes for all of us. That’s why the New Testament refers to all Christians as saints – the saints in Corinth (and we know they were a pretty mixed bunch!), the saints in Ephesus. We should try and get out of our heads the idea that Christianity is all about “being good”. That might be a by product, but it is not the primary aim of the Christian life. At its heart is a recognition of God’s reaching out to us.
I think we have to acknowledge that there are some people who respond to God by simply living their lives from the heart of the mystery of God’s love of them. In the years I knew Bishop Trevor Huddleston I always felt a special quality in him, every time I talked to him. It’s hard to describe. Love of God and love of neighbour really were one and the same thing in his mind. That hugely powerful campaigning against apartheid wasn’t just political. It came from a place way beyond that, as if he were a channel for the compassion of God. I always came away better for talking with him.
Of course Anthony’s shrine of full of the sorts of relics that make us northern, reform Christians cringe a little. But the magazines in the gift shop, published by the friars, were all about some of the poorest communities in the world. Anthony’s reality is still alive. Nor should we forget that the juxtaposition of love of God and love of neighbour must lie at the heart of our Christian lives too.