I realize that no one’s going to make me Pope anytime soon. (My not being Catholic is only one of the many reasons.) But WERE that ever to happen, down the road, and were I ever to come under pressure, as I am sure a future pope will, to declare Nelson Mandela a saint, my answer would be a thoughtful No.
Not because he doesn’t qualify. Sacrificing his entire life to the cause of justice, including 27 years suffered in prison; knitting together a country on the verge of bloody explosion; living as a constant symbol of hope, love, and reconciliation–those are indeed saintly qualities. Performing a miracle? How about getting Black South Africans to cheer for the all-White Springbok rugby team? That beats walking on water any day.
I would also not beatify President Mandela merely because he himself protested that people should not call him a saint. Humility is, of course, one of those saintly qualities.
I would not declare Saint Nelson because to do so would be to distance him from the rest of us, to make his example, for future generations, less “relatable”*…and less effective.
*one of those words with which this former English teacher maintains a hate-love relationship: can’t stand its overuse, but haven’t found an equally effective synonym
Saints suffer, of course. But the word “saint” implies–to this non-Catholic, at least–a certain inherent holiness, a kind of built-in insurance against ultimate suffering. “Well, jeez, he’s a saint,” my brain says. “Of course he sacrificed; he knew he was going to end up at God’s right hand, didn’t he?” And I don’t think my brain is all that different from other people’s brains.
What made Mandela great is the same thing that made Jesus great. But it’s also the same thing that makes cancer patients great, or anyone who gets up each day to face enormous burdens of pain or responsibility but does so with the pure energy of love and generosity toward others.
Human perseverance. Not the grit-your-teeth-and-suffer-through-it kind. The kind which makes it seem as though your burdens weigh nothing at all, because you’re constantly offering to carry the burdens of others.
I know some of those people personally. I might think of them, briefly, as saints, or even call them that, jokingly. But inside I know that what I love and admire them for is the fact that they are very, very, very human–they are flawed just like me!–and yet they STILL act so nobly.
Nelson Mandela was flawed. Nelson Mandela still managed to be an icon for all of us. It helps me to think of humans as having that potential even in the face of other humans’ evil. His very human-ness is what we need to hang onto, as we look for ways to apply his approach to other ugly parts of the world.
How about you? Do you know any human “saints”? Do you think the title of “saint” distances a person from the rest of us? Or does it bring him/her closer as a role model?