; charset=UTF-8" /> ECUMENICAL AND INTERFAITH NEWS – November : Connecting Voices
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Submitted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Pacific Southwest Region, (DOC) and the Southern California/Nevada Conference (UCC)

Who Are Our Saints?

     Hopefully most of our Disciples and UCC folks know where Halloween came from.  It is a shortening of “All Hallows Eve,” the traditional name for the night before All Saints Day, which is on November 1.    All Saints was one of the “feasts”, or special days of sacred observance, of the Church from the period of the fathers, several hundred years after Christ.   Originally it was connected with Easter, but in the eighth century it was moved to its present place in the ecclesiastical calendar.   This particular feast had its origin in the growing awareness that Christians should remember that some of their number had led very exceptional lives of love, service, courage, and holiness, even though they were not known to the church as a whole.  It was felt that we should remember not just the “saints” who had become widely known for their exceptional lives, but also the anonymous “little” people whose lives nevertheless had the same quality of devotion to Christ as the lives of the famous saints.  These anonymous folks belong to the communion of saints every bit as much as the famous ones.  Thus All Saints Day.

     For too many of us today, All Saints Day has been totally eclipsed by a secular Halloween sense of ghosts and witches which is fun—nothing wrong with that—but forgets the deeper meaning.   We do well to ask the question whether the term “saint” has any real meaning for us today in the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ?   Do we ever actually use the term to describe someone we have known who seems to have embodied in a special way the virtuous life to which our Lord called us?   Or do we use the term in a faintly sarcastic way, the way the word “martyr” is sometimes used, to describe people who pretend to be something, morally or spiritually, which they are not?

     In these days, Pope Benedict has extended the formal recognition of the Roman Catholic Church as “saints” to seven individuals who, after rigorous investigation, have been considered worthy of that title.  One of these is a Native American girl, a member of the Mohawk Indian nation, who was baptized by French Jesuits at the age of 20, in the year 1676.  This young woman, Kateri, had lost her parents in a smallpox epidemic.  After baptism she was hounded by her people for embracing the new faith.  She fled and died just four years later.  The Catholic Church believes it has established that miraculous healing has taken place for people who prayed to Kateri, considered to be alive in the communion of saints.

     What do we free-church Protestants think of this?  We may be amused or bemused by the elaborate structure of “canonization”, as the Roman Catholic process determining sainthood is known.  We may justifiably have doubts as to whether an investigation by church officials, sincere as it might be, could precisely determine who is a saint and who is not.  We certainly could not agree—as those who created the All Saints Day feast would not have agreed– that only those persons named by a church authority structure can be thought of, much less prayed to, as saints.

     On the other hand, doesn’t the R.C. Church do us a favor by reminding us, through its procedures, that there are such people as saints?   Are we not acquainted, in our midst, as UCC and Disciples followers of Christ, with people who really have lived in some sense exceptional or even extraordinary lives of devotion and purity and compassion and courage, motivated by their love of our Lord Jesus Christ?  Wouldn’t it help our people to grow further in their relationship with Christ if we spent more time pointing to our people in past and present who have taken their Christian call with amazing seriousness, and whose lives have shone with a special light as a result?  Martin Luther and John Calvin taught us to be humbly aware of our sin, and to be extra careful about falling into spiritual pride.  That’s all to the good, but let’s not let that prevent us from remembering our saints.  Some of us may feel that the late Don Shelton approached at least in some ways the high status of sainthood.  In any case, we certainly have such people, just as much as our Catholic sisters and brothers do, so let’s remember to give thanks for them, to seek them out, and to honor them.

Religious Complexity in the 21st Century

     A high point for some of us at the Bakersfield assembly of PSWR was the workshop in which our ecumenical guest, Coptic Father Youssef entered into dialogue with our interfaith guest, Sufi Muslim Noor-Malika Chishti.   Father Youssef spoke with animation of the pressure and even persecution, with even some bombings and killings, visited on the Coptic Christian people in Egypt, where they are less than 10% of the population, by the Sunni Muslim majority.   He acknowledged that Noor-Malika represented a very different strand of Islam, and pleaded with her to go to Egypt, with some of her like-minded co-religionists, to see at first hand what his people were facing, and to try to dissuade the Muslims there from their current behavior.

     Noor-Malika responded by focusing on the suffering in Father Youssef’s voice and honoring that, acknowledging the difficult truth of what he was saying.  She was not defensive, she did not object to the anger which was also, and understandably, present in his demeanor.  Nor did she point out that part of the reason the Egyptian Muslims are intolerant of their Christian compatriots is because they have painful memories of the ways in which the European Christian powers, when they were in control in Egypt, acted in superior and imperialistic ways toward them.  She did say, however, that American Muslims traveling to Egypt today would most likely not be welcome, precisely because of these memories.  It was also pointed out by another participant in the workshop that we have very recent examples, for instance in Bosnia, of Christians killing defenseless Muslims en masse.   The evil behavior has gone both ways, for a long time.

     Father Youssef, in his massive beard and headgear, would no doubt be mistaken on the street by many Americans for a Muslim himself, even though he is a Christian priest.  All of which is a lesson: that to be mature Christians in America in the 21st century requires a sensitive and informed awareness of the complexity of the world we live in, of the vast range of differences in individuals, in religious beliefs, and in social and political circumstances.  In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ we seek to do our part to foster this sensitive and informed awareness, and to believe that the Holy Spirit is able to work through even deep-going differences to create new growth and wholeness in all of us.

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