By Fr. John Robert Skeldon
Twenty-one years ago (1999), this date—it was a Monday—I was in the seminary preparing to deliver a reflection at the community mass that day. I was not yet ordained a deacon. That was to occur five days later on Saturday, November 6th. I gave what I think to this day was the best reflection/homily that I have ever been privileged to give. In my own mind, I do not think I have ever topped it. Perhaps, because it came from somewhere deep down in my soul, I don’t know. What I do know though is that it has stayed with me these twenty-one years.
I took that wonderful fourth verse from the hymn For All the Saints, which we sang/will sing as we go forth today: “O blest communion, family divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one within your great design. Alleluia! Alleluia!” I expanded upon this verse in the context of who a saint is. A saint, before anything else, is a loved sinner. One only has to know the stories of the famous saints in the history of the church or the not so famous, perhaps ones that we know personally. These people know themselves to be two things, realities, at the same time: 1) that they are sinner—that is that they have missed the mark and are in need of God’s transforming grace in their lives; and 2) that they are still loved, radically loved by God even though they have sinned, even though they have missed the mark.
This brings us back to the 4th verse of the hymn. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one within your (God’s) great design.” We struggle feebly on this earth, on this side of the grave. It isn’t easy being human and being faithful and being all the things that we are supposed to be and doing all the things we are supposed to do. Yet, somehow, in God’s mystery or design (remember what mystery means: not a problem to be solved but the overarching foundation of reality), “we all are one.” We are both sinful and still loved by God radically. I do not know if we allow ourselves to be grasped by the radicalness of this truth. We are united in one family to all those, as John’s vision from the Book of Revelation shows us, who are “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.” These are all the saints, a “family divine.”
This day is, in my estimation (and the estimation of the Eastern churches), right up there with Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. This is our feast day, because we are celebrating the goal of our lives, as the first letter of John states: “Beloved, see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet, so we are.” Yet, so we are indeed. The goal of our lives is to know ourselves as loved sinners, as children of God whose holiness we will grow into, maybe struggling feebly, maybe through fits and starts, maybe only at the other side of death. We pray incessantly with all the other loved sinners throughout history: “Lord, this is the people who longs to see your face.”
At that reflection which I gave twenty-one years ago, I referenced those members of my class who would be ordained deacons that autumn Saturday. I have a picture of the four of us: we represent the four corners of the world, John’s vision in miniature, perhaps something of the four living creatures: Phi from Asia (Galveston-Houston), Juan Pablo from the Dominican Republic but whose ancestors are African (G-H), me from here but of European descent, Salvador from Mexico, of native American descent (Dallas). I talked about the gifts that these three men had; Phi in his conviction and determination, Juan Pablo in his charisma and liveliness; Salvador, in the gift that my mother instantly picked up in him and which is so rare today: his gentleness. I know these three persons, and I know also their feeble struggles, which they have experienced since ordination: Phi has dealt with brain cancer; Juan Pablo dealt with a lot of ministry issues and has since left the active ministry; Salvador has had to deal with me (loneliness, overwork, etc). I referenced our class at that reflection because they are in miniature the definition of a saint: a loved sinner. I didn’t reference any particular gift or virtue about me, but when I sat down, crazy Fr. Ed (truly a saint), who was the presider, said “John Robert, your gift is your transparency.” I knew what he meant; and so did everyone else. It is a gift, and as with most gifts, it is also a cross and has a shadow side.
Sometimes, I am easily wounded, hurt by other’s words or accusations. Sometimes, I too easily can hurt others, not realizing in what I say or don’t say, I can offend or wound. If I have done that to you, I apologize and ask your forgiveness. The great joy of serving in a community like this one is that people care very deeply about their spiritual life, about the church and about their faith. The more challenging thing is that this community is also a microcosm of the bigger world. There are people here from all over the world. And the minister of Jesus Christ, the priest, is to love everyone. If I have not, I am sorry.
That’s something one does not hear much from Church people enough, both clergy and laity. And yet that is the very essence of “feebly struggling”. All of us “feebly struggle” to experience that we are loved sinners, saints on the way, so to speak. There is a lot of pain and sorrow and guilt in people’s lives for a whole variety of reasons. The church needs to keep being a hospital for sinners before it becomes a hotel for saints. We’re still on the way to that goal. I fear sometimes, that in our effort to look like the world, we have brought everything from the world in, including the divisiveness, the polarization and the sheer lack of decency in treating each other. (I again include myself in that conviction, and for that I am sorry.)
The church is neither major political party; it is not a society of the like-minded. It is the body of Christ on the cross which continues to be broken, wounded and crying out for help: “Lord, this is the people who longs to see your face.” The members of Holy Mother Church are sinners…sinners though who are infinitely loved, more so than we can possibly dare to imagine or dream, by the God of the Beatitudes…so much so that he calls these members, calls us, “Blessed.” May the great cloud of witnesses who surround us spur us on to persevere in the race that they at one time ran, so that we too, with them, might one day be called Blessed, Holy, saints among the saints of heaven. All you holy men and women, saints of God, pray for us.