There is something almost paradoxical about a list. On the one hand, is there anything duller on earth? A mundane itemization of sundry matters that you can’t afford to forget but which don’t rank high enough to bother remembering. On the other hand, a list has power. Real power. It hardly matters whether it contains people, groceries, or inventory. Someone somewhere thought them important enough to note them down.
That should give us pause. For whatever is on a list, you can be assured that the list maker will circle back around to it. Action will be taken. (And may God help those who increasingly wind up on the wrong kind of a list these days.)
At any rate, I caught up with a well-respected theologian I know over the last few months. Our phone calls tend to consist of discussing a shared research interest. This last time, he mentioned some books by a Jesuit from the late 1800s which could be food for thought on the subject.
Now. When it comes to such matters, I keep lists. I like lists.
So, when he ticked off these volumes by name, I dutifully registered them under “Books to Read or Acquire,” a file located beneath the lengthy and (ridiculously) alphabetized list of books I currently own. To my surprise, I already had some of his works. I had simply forgotten the priest’s name.
And it is remembering such names that I want to gently raise here.
Now, lists of names can be the most tedious of all, especially if we fail to see the connection to ourselves. Remember roll call? As children, it seemed interminable. And you can see fully grown adults’ eyes glaze over when they hear ancestral lines of descent drawn from Scripture at Mass.
Yet, both Scripture and the Church treat genealogy – lineage and name lists – with reverence. And for good reason. In a sense, bishops and the priests they ordain have millennia-old pedigrees of their own, the Apostolic Succession. And carefully maintained within the Roman Canon is a list of some of the early martyrs and saints as they were invoked from ancient times in the liturgy. It was the Church that declared both Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, with their ancestries of Christ, canonical and inspired by God. If those Gospel genealogies mean nothing to us now, we have failed to read enough of the Bible. Because those names meant something to Jesus. Each one of them is both a person and a story. And all of us are our history, Christ included.
Years ago, I was board-certified in genealogy – back when you needed more than a subscription, a computer, and some spit. And I aimed to instill in those researching their lineage that you never want just a list of names. You want to know the individuals themselves. Their struggles, their triumphs, their heartbreaks. How did their faith inform their life? What were their stories?
This usually fell on deaf ears. Most people wanted to find a famous name in their lineage. If you failed to locate one, they were disappointed and complained they had a list of “nobodies.”
There is no such thing as “nobody.”
There are souls, who, having lived their lives of clay, go to their judgment. And as Scripture says, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). They deserve our respect and continued prayers. They gave us life.
But the other thing I tried to encourage was for them to keep a “tree” of the priests who had ministered to their family over the years. The ones that show up on baptismal and wedding records. The men who preached, absolved, and buried their ancestors. Because they too are part of their history. And deserve remembrance.
A number of parishes where I was living held weekly evenings of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to make atonement for the sins and scandals of the clergy. They held them on different nights over the course of a month. The experience of the very first evening indelibly impressed upon me a frightening notion; namely, that the souls of some of these men, saved solely by God’s mercy and others’ prayers, were nearly indistinguishable from those of the damned. That evening has stayed with me ever since.
It was not something that would have occurred to me as a child. Back then, there was still a candlelit procession through the parish graveyard to pray for the Poor Souls. With great solemnity, the priest carried the Eucharist through the black of night to the cemetery chapel. The faithful wound their way through the burial grounds, past the knoll where the priests were interred, chanting litanies and praying for their dead. Then they all dispersed to their own loved ones’ graves.
No one was at the knoll.
A child can be forgiven for thinking the priests were holy and in no need of prayer. Adults could be forgiven for keeping it brief in the freezing cold. But I look at it differently now. And it bothers me. And the priest who led those processions? I have forgotten his name as well. That bothers me too.
For whatever else a priest is – holy or sinful, zealous or indolent – they still provide sacraments to the people. They still offer the Sacrifice to God. They still go to their fearsome judgment and stand in need of prayer. But having no inheritance but the ones they ministered to, who will remember their names before the Lord?
Each year, round about now, I bring out my most valuable lists: the genealogies of my family. And I draw up a roll of the dead to remember in prayer. But I include in that number those men who made my family’s faith life possible. And whose final judgments will reflect the higher standards to which they were called.
All of us are, indeed, our history. But these men are a crucial part of it.
*Image: All Souls’ Day by Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch, 1910 [Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall S.J.’s All Saints’ Day
Brad Miner’s Things I Refer To