This past Sunday, the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, issued an apology without expressing sorrow. With explicit humility, the apology was implicit in the 16-page special section dedicated to women who made great contributions to culture, society, or history and were not given an appropriate obituary or whose notice of death was egregiously substandard. For example, Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, and Emily Warren Roebling, who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, were denied obituaries. Susan B. Anthony’s highlighted her physical traits, including a “firm but rather pleasing face.”
The newspaper’s leadership pledges to correct this historical oversight, moving forward. It promises to learn which women and men, especially those of color and other minority populations who were bypassed at their passing, and then celebrate their lives by finally marking their deaths.
Through the years, the church has overlooked lay women and men who have served tirelessly and faithfully. We take great consolation that the communion of saints includes these disciples whose faith is known to God who embraces them eternally in heaven. However, the canon of saints continues to be dominated religious—largely men—whom the Vatican has been determined enjoy eternal life. While Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis all called for more lay people to be advanced for such heavenly consideration, canonization is not the only medium for the church to celebrated the vast contributions of disciples whose lives, witness, and generosity have impacted the local or larger experiences of the church.
From the woman who has served in Catholic schools or religious education for years to the dad who has long coached in a parish’s athletic programs, these sterling examples of dedication to a community to advance the Gospel in the hearts of others are praiseworthy and deserving of our admiration and emulation. Obituaries in church newspapers rightly highlight the deaths of bishops and priests. But are these media overlooking others whose commitment to the church has made the church the community of grace, compassion, service, and generosity that brings us new members and inspiring? At Sunday at church or whenever we engage the extra-miler parishioner, do we affirm those who generously share of their time or talent within the parish? This may possibly be the best way to reverse the pattern of overlooking those who look over others with care and prayer.
St. Francis de Sales famously wrote that the “church is a garden patterned with unlimited flowers.” We need all the flowers, not just the ones that are most popular or most easily noticed. When we walk about the garden that is our church, for which people are we most grateful for their contributions to the fragrance and beauty of our experience of the church that they so wonderfully help to build?