Those Who Inspire Us to Lead Nobler Lives

By: Marek Zabriskie

One of the figures who has touched my heart is Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, the Polish priest and unofficial chaplain of the underground Solidarity movement, who courageously celebrated the Eucharist with the striking Polish shipyard workers and was killed 35 years ago.

I have long admired Fr. Jerzy’s courage for standing up to the tyrannical Communist regime. To the Communists, he was more than a thorn in the flesh. Jerzy was a political threat. His sermons combined spiritual exhortations with political messages. They were routinely broadcast by Radio Free Europe across Poland, making him an uncompromising figure opposing the regime.

Jerzy articulated his most important principle as “Overcome evil with good.” He said, “We are to tell the truth when others are silent. To express love and respect when others express hate. Keep silent when others are speaking. Pray when others are cursing. Help when others do not want to do it. Forgive when others cannot. Enjoy life when others disregard it.”

The Communists called his celebrations of the mass a “séance of hate” and deemed them to be illegal political rallies. They spread false rumors about Fr. Jerzy of alleged financial embezzlements and immoral conduct in an effort to discredit him.

On October 19, 1984, three members of the secret police kidnaped and tortured Fr. Jerzy and dumped his body in the Vistula River. Over 250,000 people attended his funeral in Warsaw.

Seven years later, I visited his large, cross-shaped, granite grave outside the Church of Saint Stanislaw Kostka in Warsaw. Fear was still in the air. Communism had only recently fallen. The Polish people had lived for decades under police surveillance.

I asked around the church if anyone knew Fr. Jerzy. Soon, a woman appeared and whispered in a thick Polish accent, “Are you the American priest?” I replied, “Yes.” “Then follow me,” she said in a commanding voice.

She led me along the side of the church to a cellar door, opened it and told me to go down the steps. I was nervous until she turned on a light, opened the door and escorted me into a secret museum dedicated to Fr. Jerzy.

Once inside, she showed me display cases full of Fr. Jerzy’s possession – his books, hiking boots, soccer kit, military uniform, priestly vestments and a letter that President Reagan wrote to Fr. Jerzy’s family, after he had been martyred for being a Christian.

Saints and holy people inspire us to live a larger, nobler life. They are not all clergy, martyrs, monks or nuns. Many saints come disguised as parents or grandparents, coaches, teachers, physicians, nurses, lawyers, scientists, counselors, bosses or mentors. They showed us Christ.

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article about Ted Aronson, who is shutting down his Philadelphia-based value-investing firm. His firm’s performance over the last five years has been horrible.

So, Aronson is giving $10 billion back to his investors. Columnist Jason Zweig wrote, “Asset managers return their investors’ capital about as often as sharks regurgitate swimmers without a scratch.” Could Aronson be a saint with a small “s”? I believe so.

We are not talking medieval statures, moonlike halos or holy hats, but flesh-and-blood people about whom we can say, “That’s a noble and holy way to lead one’s life.”

If you are anything like me, your Christian faith did not come at first by reciting creeds or studying theological books, but it came by glimpsing something compelling in someone you knew that conveyed love. You detected a Christ-like spirit in someone else.

Perhaps, it was an act of courage in the face of an illness. Maybe it was an unexpected gift of forgiveness or an extraordinary act of compassion. Saints with a small “s” show us our true potential as persons made in God’s likeness.

When asked why he painted portraits as he did, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “I want to paint people with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which I seek to convey by the radiance and vibration of my coloring.”

If you look closely at his portraits, you will see an aura around the head of many of Van Gogh’s portraits. He depicted saints like you and me with a little “s.”

Any religious faith will be judged by one thing – does it or does it not produce holy, compassionate people of generosity and integrity, whose lives in some ways mirror the Love at the heart of the universe?

Long after they have died, we remember these saintly figures whose lives touched us. From time to time, we ask ourselves, “How would she or he have acted in this situation?”

These saintly figures continue to exert influence over our lives long after they have died. They help us to walk in the light of Christ and to let God’s light to shine through us.

Every church is meant to be a factory for saints. If a church is not busy making saints, there’s no reason for it to exist. The world can get along just fine without a church that doesn’t produce saints.

But it is baptism, not heroics, which give us our halos. At each baptism, we pledge to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. Sainthood with a small “s” is about little things more than legendary things.

There’s a moment in the play A Man for All Seasons when Sir Thomas More is encouraging his son-in-law to become a teacher. The young man protests about having such an insignificant role. “Who would notice me except God and my students?” More responds, “Not a bad audience, that.”

Not a bad audience to have God watching as we raise our children, care for aging parents, support someone whose fortunes are sinking or act ethically in an unethical environment. Some aspects of religion might leave us cold – the doctrine, ritual or bureaucracy – but that should not stifle our quest to be a saint with a small “s.”

Why settle just for money, power, a career or second home, when there is something deeper that tugs at the heart like the desire to lead a noble and holy life. Jesus said,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
(Matt. 5:3-6)

This is a counterintuitive approach to living one’s life. It is not how the world normally works, but it is holy people and saints with a small “s” go about leading noble lives each day.