Who will face Teresa of Avila for the Golden Halo? That's the question of the day as Thomas of Villanova squares off against José Hernández. Yesterday, Teresa advanced to the championship round by narrowly defeating Madeleine Sophie Barat 52% to 48%. We're getting close!
In case you missed yesterday's episode of Monday Madness, you can watch it here.
Thomas of Villanova
The past two years have been (yes, I’ll say it) unprecedented. In the span of hours and days, many of us went from living our lives to staying safe at home. Those of us involved with faith communities found ourselves learning about digital ministry as we lived it. We were separated from so much of what made our lives rich, interesting, and even annoying. Our church programs hit pause. We couldn’t gather in person. Pastoral visits to hospitals stopped. And millions died.
I sat in the messiness of it all and wondered who we were as the church now? Now that all we had built, from our buildings to our nifty Church programs, were not what they were.
So what, indeed, were we?
Thomas has a response.
We were still the Church. We were still the community that Jesus called us to be. We were still capable of small acts of great love, no matter where we were.
We are still the Church Thomas served so faithfully.
Not one concerned with nifty new programs or pomp and circumstance, but one concerned with helping those in our world who are hungry, who are unhoused, who are sick, who are alone, and who are afraid.
Thomas is a Christian in a long line of Christians who lived his life. He was a college professor, a son, a monk, a priest, and a bishop. He didn’t make his choices to follow Christ based on what would look good on his resume, but on how he could best serve the least of these whom Jesus loves. He rejected being appointed bishop for years, until finally he said yes, to a diocese that hadn’t had a bishop in almost a century.
To say they were probably a messy place is an understatement.
Yet he went there, filled with humility and love, and immediately opened the churches and his home to those who needed shelters, to those who needed food, and to those who needed welcome. He went to the jails and demanded the dignity of those imprisoned be respected. He found the holy balance between what he needed to live and what could be better used to help those in need. He became known as Father of the Poor.
As we find our way in the world still impacted by Covid, I wonder if saints like Thomas can guide us still, reminding us of why Jesus called us out of our lives and into the world. Thomas has certainly reminded me that the Church is not a building or a set of fancy programs, but a messy community of people who are willing to love and to serve - sharing our gifts, sharing our love, sharing our faith.
I looked for milestone moments; what I discovered instead was humble, everyday holiness. Day in and day out, healing, teaching, and serving; José Hernández was a man for others. There was no one famous story, it turned out; but one million—one million quiet miracles of illnesses healed or debts paid, the kind of miracles that are famous in one house, not to history.
José was dedicated to his work, but it cost him other dreams. As a young man, and really throughout his life, he dreamed of becoming a priest. But that would mean turning his back on the rare education and opportunities he had been blessed with. In his heart, he knew his community needed a doctor more than they needed another priest.
El santo medico refused wealth and status, he said no to easier jobs because he wanted to serve the poor. He didn’t spurn money as much as he truly understood its power, how people struggled to live with dignity. He saw how all too often, it was poverty that was the death sentence, not the diagnosis.
When people called him a miracle-worker, José insisted that it was God’s grace. His strong faith helped people to know God, and to believe that God cared about them. I keep thinking about his funeral–the crowds filling the streets to follow his coffin, chanting “Dr. Hernández is ours!”
It can be tricky to be a Latina blogger writing about a Latino saint. You want to do right by their story, clarifying traditions that have often been dismissed or misunderstood, while not being misunderstood yourself. It felt important to acknowledge other religious traditions also recognize José’s holiness—not to say these religions are right, or equivalent, but for what this can teach us about the power of our own Christian witness to change people’s lives.
I know some readers found this narrative choice distasteful, but it helped me understand myself. Santería and María Lionza would not exist if not for colonialism and the brutality of the slave trade—and neither would the vital witness of Latin American Christianity. For José to be a devout Catholic Venezuelan, for me to come from faithful Puerto Rican Christians, is to know that freedom in Christ has become ours through a terrible history of violence. To be a Latin American Christian is to live a complex faith—knowing injustice and evil brought Christianity to your people, but still trusting in Jesus. In Him, even the hard wood of the cross became a tree of life.
José lived the complexity with eyes wide open. He spent day after day with the sick and the dying, saw the randomness of poverty and suffering, and still got up each morning praising God. José Gregorio Hernández should win the Golden Halo because his life should inspire every single one of us to use the gifts that we have been given, to walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us. Our lives truly can be an offering to God and to the world.