Last Tuesday was the Feast Day of St. Clare of Assisi. She is the namesake of the Jesuit university where I did my undergrad studies, and subsequently, she is the saint I picked for myself rather unthinkingly when I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation a year ago. On Monday when I first heard about her impending Feast Day, I felt like a little girl who had just received an invitation to her best friend’s birthday party. I was so delighted to celebrate her life! And this flood of excitement surprised me. How and when had I acquired such devotion to St. Clare? Or to any saint for that matter? Sure, I have these various connections to her. But I never before had I realized that the connections had become personal.
I didn’t grow up in a family or parish community with a particularly visible devotion to the saints. St. Jude was the patron of my childhood church, but beyond the name of the parish, the only real sign of it was in the reliable mention of his name at some point during the Eucharist Prayer. There was a big statue of Mary in our sanctuary, but she was known more for her virginity than her sainthood. Thus, for most of my life, if you asked me to define a “saint” I could not give you more of an explanation than, “someone who the Church deems important.” And this bothered me. I didn’t know who the saints were–only that, as a Catholic, they were supposed to be important to me.
And it really is difficult to pinpoint when saints, like St. Clare, actually became important to me. For as much as I can tell, this development was actually the consequence of a larger religious paradigm shift. During most of my Catholic upbringing, I thought religious identity, and my Catholic identity specifically, was defined by doctrinal beliefs to which I assented, and communal rituals in which I obligatorily engaged. Amid the theological studies, impassioned peer discussion, and unabashed questioning of my college years, my understanding of Catholic identity became something much more complicated and mysterious and beautiful. It became about God’s covenant–God’s relationship–with people like me, and our subsequent covenant to one another. “Church” became the communion of people all around me, and our communion with people throughout history. People like the saints. People like St. Clare.
As I came to recognize the significance of faithful Christ-like peers, mentors, and family members in my Catholic identity, I realized that the saints can offer me similar insights into who God is, and who God calls us to be. That’s why, during the celebration of her Feast Day at Mass on Tuesday, I asked St. Clare to pray for all of us, that we might have eyes to see and love the communion of holy people all around us.
Jessica Coblentz graduated from Santa Clara University in 2008. She will begin graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School this fall. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.