In a homily he preached this past Sunday at the Patriarchal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Francis said, in part:To be sure, the testimony of faith comes in very many forms, just as in a great fresco, there is a variety of colours and shades; yet they are all important, even those which do not stand out. In God’s great plan, every detail is important, even yours, even my humble little witness, even the hidden witness of those who live their faith with simplicity in everyday family relationships, work relationships, friendships. There are the saints of every day, the "hidden" saints, a sort of "middle class of holiness", as a French author said, that "middle class of holiness" to which we can all belong.
The use of “class” in this context begs a series of questions. First of them, for me, is “Who is the ‘upper class’ of holiness?” Pope Francis gives a hint, and it isn’t hard to figure this out: Peter and Paul, Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila and Therese the Little Flower, and so on. They are (to be vulgar for a second) the “Bill Gateses and the Warren Buffetts” of the Kingdom of God.
But holiness is a daily thing, as Pope Francis says above: it’s not limited to the “great and powerful.” What might that ‘middle class of holiness’ look like? I want to offer two answers.
The first is how that level of holiness might appear in the Kingdom itself. For this, I turn to a scene from C S Lewis’ The Great Divorce. While being given a tour of hell/purgatory/heaven, Lewis and his guide, George Macdonald (who plays Virgil to Lewis’ Dante) encounter a woman surrounded by a train of angels. Lewis hesitates, thinking to be the Virgin Mary. He asks, “Is it?...Is it?”… “Not at all,” said [Macdonald]. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
Heavenly glory is a reflection, then, of the graced living of our lives “here below.” It has everything to do with the quality of our commitment and faith-walk, and nothing whatever to do with how many people knew about us. It means, then (offering my second answer), that ‘middle class holiness’ is every bit as important to building the Body of Christ as the ‘upper class,’ the famous ones to whom we look. And this leads me to Deacon Sam Shippen.
I took part in Sam’s funeral this past Monday in Prattville. I knew Sam and many of his family for about 30 years. He was the prayer-captain (“palanca boss”) of the Cursillo weekend I made, and I worked a number of other weekends with him. Much of his life was given over to prison ministry, a ministry I shared (peripherally) with him for some years. He was a man of grace, of gentleness, of humility, and of goodness. I always felt myself a better disciple for being around him.
He is a captain, I am sure, in the “middle class of holiness” that Pope Francis spoke of. Outside our circle of relationships, no one would know Sam’s name. But those that did know it will never forget it. And I am one of them. If I but could attain to the “middle class of holiness” I would be forever blessed…