What is a saint? Many may think of the heroes of the early Church like St Peter and Thérèse of Lisieux, but the list extends onwards through time to contemporary saints like Matt Talbot and Edel Quinn. So Great a Cloud tells the story of these saints, old and new, be they clergy, laity, scholars, highprofile or less known, all with one thing in common , their ability to challenge and encourage us.
The book can also be seen as a history of the Church in terms of outstanding Christians, illuminated by Stephen Redmonds original poetic verses.The success stories of this communion of saints remind us that the pilgrim Church, despite its human failings, is essentially a way to God, a God that, historically and redemptively, remains one of us.
Stephen Redmond SJ is a Jesuit priest, author and composer. Previously a history teacher, he has a great interest in the lives of saints.
Fr Redmond has been the author of many books over the years, but this book is perhaps by way of being a cumulation of many of his thoughts and feelings. He addresses himself to the question of "What is a Saint?"
Now the long volumes of Alban Butler, or even more Butler revised by Attwater, give the reader daunting amounts of information about the lives of saints well-known and others almost forgotten. Yet in two thousand years of Christian witness some names have always stood out.
Fr Redmond has wisely divided the book, which is aimed at the general reader, into two parts-an historical part that runs from St Peter to Th6r&se of Liseux and the second part which deals with the recent century. If the first part contains mostly duly canonised saints, this second part deals with many brave and large hearted individuals who have not been so recognised.
The processes of official sanctity (if we can put it that way) are often slow and tortuous and beset with what many see as political manouvres. All that aside, there are individuals that all who met them in life knew were saintly people: Matt Talbot, John Sullivan, Chester-ton, CS Lewis (though whether Lewis, as an Anglican, would ever be formally canonised by home is doubtful).
However Fr Redmonds theme is "witness" and the most interesting parts of this continually interesting book, are the later chapters detailing the lives of such people, not just the humble Baudoin, King of the Belgians, but, also a number of people in Dublin whose faith impressed itself upon the author over the years.
So while he draws out from the historical material his own personal vision, that vision becomes most explicit in these chapters. They remind us that that the gift which we call sanctity is to be found in many lowly places of the earth. A saint (however defined) is more likely to be found among the poor of the parish than the princes of the Church.
- The Irish Catholic, 11th June 2009
- Having therefore so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that weighs us down, every clinging sin, let us run with determination the race set before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus, from whom faith comes and in whom faith is crowned.
In grateful tribute to all, beginning with my parents, who helped me along the way of faith.
From Peter to Thérèse
Andrew first found his brother Simon and said to him, we have found the Messiah [which means Christ]. He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, so you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Kephas [which means Rock].
So it was, according to the Gospel of John, that Christ and Peter met for the first time. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke show Peter being called to discipleship with his brother Andrew at the Sea of Galilee. It seems that John was recording a preliminary call and the other gospels recorded the definitive one.
John also tells us that Peter, along with Andrew and Philip, came from Bethsaida, The House of the Fishermen. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention Peter and his mother-in-law at Capernaum, another lake-side town. Luke says that he and Andrew fished in partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
The relationship between Christ and Peter is one of the most amazing features of the gospels. Each is, as it were, a foil to the other, bringing out the others reality, the others heart.
Quite clearly the gospel-forming Church of the very early years realised that Simon the Rock was a Very Important Person in the Christevent. He is always named first in lists of the Twelve and appears in one unforgettable scene after another, scenes which, when put together, make a sort of fifth gospel: the Gospel of Peter , Peter searching for Jesus at prayer, in the storm on the lake, protesting to and admonished by Jesus, accepted by Jesus as the spokesman of the Twelve, given a unique stewardship in the Church, first-named of the privileged trio with Jesus on certain occasions and the only individual recorded in the gospels as prayed for by Jesus.
In the Passion the relationship is sheer drama: the feet-washing scene at the Last Supper, I will never fall away you will deny me; sleeper and swordsman in Gethsemane; and most dramatic of all, his denials (given in all four gospels , no cover-ups here): the Lord turned and looked at Peter (Luke), and he broke down and wept (Mark).
John provides a graphic picture of him on Easter morning running to the tomb with the beloved disciple and going in and viewing the graveclothes. Luke briefly reports an appearance of the risen Lord to him. He is highlighted in great detail in the last chapter of John: splashing ashore to meet Jesus, attesting his love, being made pastor of the people of God, promised martyrdom and told, as before, to follow me. Even at this ecstatic Easter moment the ever-human Peter is curious to know what will happen to the beloved disciples and is (surely, serenely and gently) told to mind his own business, which is to say follow me.
Some great gospel lines of Peters are part of the rich Christian heritage of prayer: Depart from me for I am a sinful man; Lord, to whom shall we go?; You have the words of eternal life You are the Holy One of God; You are the Christ, the Son of the living God; Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.
In the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is the leading figure of the infant Church. He initiates the election of Matthias as one of the Twelve, gives the Pentecost proclamation and confronts the religious establishment with the Easter Good News. He gains a reputation as a miracle-worker, is imprisoned and scourged with his colleagues and preaches with John in Samaria. He welcomes the new and alarming convert Paul of Tarsus. I remained with Kephas fifteen days, Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. An intriguing interlude in which, surely, Peter poured out his memories of Jesus, Paul linked these memories with his own revelation of the risen Lord and each became acquainted with the other while they discussed the prospects of the Church.
At Joppa (modern Jaffa), Peter had a spiritual experience comparable to that of Paul on the road to Damascus. It convinced him that Christ was meant for Gentiles as well as for Jews, and it was immediately followed by his reception of the centurion Cornelius and his relatives and close friends into the Church.
Back in Jerusalem, he defended his pro-Gentile stance and was imprisoned by King Herod Agrippa. After his escape he went to another place , this was perhaps Antioch, where an important Christian community was developing. We know on the evidence of Paul that he was in Antioch at some stage, where Paul rebuked him for holding aloof from Gentile Christians out of fear of what Paul called the circumcision party. The rebuke can be read as a recognition of Peters importance and influence. He was in Jerusalem for the debate regarding whether Gentile converts were bound by the law of Moses, especially with reference to circumcision. Peter strongly and effectively said no, thus helping to liberate the Church for its mission to the nations.
There is a very ancient and very strong tradition that Peter was martyred in Rome during Neros persecution, 64, 68 AD. This tradition is confirmed by early Roman Peter-cult and the fact that no other local church claimed him as its own martyr. Therefore, it can be safely accepted.
And so the Easter promise of John 21 was fulfilled: the old man Peter held out his hands and was bound fast and taken to death.
Saint of companionship with Christ, of mission from Christ, of return to Christ after failure and prayed for by Christ , pray for us.
Hands once good at nets and oars are tied
I think of other hands: nailed, crucified
I saw them at the lake: so different
wounded still but vibrant, radiant
signalling hope and love, outstretched to give
saying, Like me youll die, like me youll live.
And so Ill die and come ashore
home at last forevermore
with One who keeps his promises
his hands in mine and mine in his.