During Mass the other day, the presider asked the congregation to add intentions to the Prayers of the Faithful. I offered a prayer for an ill priest at Blessed John XXIII Seminary here in Massachusetts. After we all sat down my roommate leaned in and judgingly said, “I think you mean SAINT John XXIII.” My Catholic embarrassment reached schoolboy-ish highs. How could I have forgotten???
This moment made me realize that our recent declarations of sainthood involve more work than I would have expected (and not just for theologians and miracle-investigating doctors). Stoneworkers and Signmakers the world over must be rejoicing over the countless parishes and institutions now in need of their services. The pastors and finance officers in charge of paying these craftspeople must be fussing over their budgets to find the necessary money to pay them—not to mention the money needed to pay for the accompanying celebrations.
What’s in a name-change? Clearly a lot of time, money, effort, and stress.
So why do we even bother naming our churches after people? It is far less expensive to name our churches after our towns or Biblical themes. It also seems to be less risky. Places and themes are not going anywhere. They are not going to cause us any fuss. I think in particular about parishioners of St. Christopher Parishes. Concerns about his actual historical existence were raised, he was demoted from the calendar of saints: I can only imagine the effect that had on the bedrock of their faiths.
It seems that people can always cause us trouble–even 1750 years after their supposed life ended! That’s how people are, because we are fragile and imperfect. Even as our new papal saints intercede for us from Heaven, I suspect they will continue causing us some angst here on earth. Our access to people’s shortcomings is ever growing in capacity; there is a likelihood that researchers will unearth unsavory details that question their sanctity. What will that say about institutions that bear their names? Do they bear the same stains and shames? These findings may very well tempt us all to become cynics.
Yet I think this temptation should only confirm the habit and practice of naming our institutions after the people of God. Places, themes, motifs, and catch-words have no standing in the blessedness of eternal life. People do. Apostles, martyrs, mothers, fathers, monks, and popes: at one time or another they all made a muck of the life that was given to them. Nevertheless, through prayer and the outpouring of grace, they were able to make that muck work for the greater glory of God.
This coexistence of muck and grace – this is what the Church is after! That is what the Church is about! That is why people make such great namesakes whether they are family names or parish names. They remind us that boundless good can come from those who themselves were not boundlessly good. More importantly, when they adorn our stained glass windows, prayer cards, and statues, they remind us that God does not reward our perfection, He transforms our faithfulness. He makes us – like John XXIII and John Paul II – servants of His Church and coheirs to Eternal Life.