Oh, when the saints go marching in to history
’Saints preserve us! There was actually a positive story about the Catholic Church in the papers last week.
Having read (and written) so many that cast a very dim view of the church and its representatives, I was glad to see some good news for a change: the late Karol Józef Wojtyla — aka Pope John Paul II — is going to be beatified. In other words, he is on the way to being proclaimed a saint. My mum loved him and if she were alive today she'd be overjoyed.
I know what you're thinking. Why am I so pleased?
Well, once a Catholic, always a Catholic as they say. I may be a thoroughly modern, forward-thinking and sometimes cynical realist, but nevertheless I still believe in the sanctity of the saints and the actual possibility of miracles. It's one of the few traditions associated with Catholicism that I've retained to this day.
Other religions may look on it as a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus and gobbledegook, but to me and many more devout Catholics, saints are the role models that we look up to.
I was brought up that way; I was named after one, studied their lives at school, talked about them at home and prayed to them before bed. Whilst a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were concepts I found impossible to grasp, the lives of the saints weren't. They were usually simple stories of goodies versus baddies — Christians versus heathens — easy for a kid to comprehend and as exciting as any science fiction.
For anyone who isn't au fait with the Catholic concept of saints and their role in the lives of their followers, let me briefly explain. It's a tradition in our church that certain saints are associated with certain things. For example, Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, so if you are embarking on a long journey, you would pray to him to keep you safe.
Another popular example is Saint Jude, who is known as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. He's the ‘if-all-else-fails’ saint — the one you pray to with the really impossible problems where you have nowhere else to turn. I've prayed to him so often over the years that I half expect him to reply “Not you again!” or “Why don't I ever get any of the easy stuff?”
I was always particularly proud of my own Patron Saint, Francis of Assisi, and still am to this day. He is the Patron Saint of Animals. His love of nature, particularly birds, and his ability to tame wild creatures inspired me so much as a kid that I was determined to follow in his footsteps.
Unfortunately I didn't possess the same supernatural knack that he had and birds didn't instinctively follow me in fearless flocks wherever I went, but I did manage to tame a robin and a family of collared doves to feed from my hand and was absolutely convinced that St Francis was watching over me as I did.
Meanwhile, my mum's devotion to Saint Anthony of Padua was so much a part of our lives that it almost felt like he was a family member. Saint Anthony is the patron of lost things. So, if anything was ever lost, mum would always (without fail) say “Pray to saint Anthony!”
Now, I must say, he never really worked for me. I was always losing things, then praying to Saint Anthony, but nothing happened and they were still lost. He never seemed to listen to me. Maybe Saint Jude had tipped him off.
But mum and he had a special relationship. She got straight through to Saint Anthony on a direct line. And he always helped her out.
I remember one perfect example from years ago. We were just about to set off on a family holiday, when my brother realised that his passport was missing. Panic set in. We all turned the house upside down, looking for it as dad sat in the car outside, impatiently pomping his horn, all packed and ready to go. Then mum called in the troops: “Pray to Saint Anthony!”
We all tutted, sighed and rolled our eyes, thinking “here we go again ...” but mum was convinced this was the only solution.
As she prayed, she walked over to the statue of St Anthony which sat on the windowsill, next to a vase of flowers from the garden. “Come on, Saint Anthony, you can do it!” she said (very irreverently, I thought) “Tell me where to look!”
That moment, dad banged on the window from outside, mouthing “get a bloody move on!” and a petal fell from a tulip and went down the back of the radiator below it. Mum glanced down and there she saw it — the lost passport — jammed behind the radiator and the wall.
It was probably just a coincidence, but try telling mum that.
So now, four years after she died, her beloved Pope John Paul II is on the way to being made into a saint. And I reckon mum and Saint Anthony and Karol Wojtyla will already be celebrating.