"I believe in the Holy Spirit... The Holy Catholic Church... The Communion of Saints..."
These words are repeated any time the Apostles' Creed is recited, and also through the more elaborate phrasing of the Nicene Creed at Catholic Masses every weekend: a chorus of voices forming one community comprised of individuals, families, friends and visitors of many walks of life and many stories coming together to celebrate and reaffirm the faith that holds all in common.
The Catholic Church is an incredibly large, diverse, worldwide community. From the very beginning, this Church has consisted of the most ordinary of people. The first Apostles were neither scholarly nor wealthy, and nearly every Scriptural figure had some need, foible or messy situation to which we can easily relate. Disabilities abound in Scripture, from physical impairments to neurological conditions. From merely an anthropological standpoint, we can deduce that the population back then had its own gradation from mainstream to marginalized for one reason or another, not terribly different from what we see today.
The stories in Scripture, especially the words of Jesus Himself, show not only compassion and empathy, but also a distinct celebration of the gifts that each of these individuals brought to their community. The faith of the early Church was enriched and embodied by acknowledgment of the frailties that drew out the humanity in each of its members. The same can be said of the body of the Church through each successive age and period in history: the poor, the vulnerable, the failing and the complicated exist side by side with the strong, the polished, the wealthy and the successful. Indeed, many moments of epiphany occur when strength encounters weakness and the true meaning of Christian love is revealed.
When the community affirms its belief in the Communion of Saints, we acknowledge those souls throughout time who have exemplified in their lives what Jesus intended our own lives to look like. Saints, even as a subgroup, have the same distribution of traits and circumstances as any other community, from privileged to disadvantaged and every degree of challenge in between. (For more on what makes a saint a saint, visit our previous Missionary Thought here. )
Patronage is a special designation among the canonized saints which recognizes their lives’ specialty or devotional association. It is rare that any given saint is not known as the patron of something, even nominally. A random search on lesser-known saints might turn up, for instance, those like St. Boris, who lived a pious Christian life cut short at the hands of his jealous pagan brother. His holy example is commemorated on the Orthodox calendar with feast days on May 2 and July 24, but his story does not lend itself to a cause more specific than pious Christianity itself, and he is not known for any specialized patronage.
Are saints like Boris simply unlucky, victims of antiquity and the long shadows cast by better-known saints with more popular devotions? Not at all. Sainthood is not a popularity contest, though proprietors of religious goods can attest that certain saints’ prayers and images are in higher demand than others. St. Peregrine, for instance, is the Patron Saint of Cancer Patients. St. Anthony is the Patron of Lost Items. St. Joseph is Patron of Workers, Carpenters, Fathers, Happy Death and The Universal Church, along with several locations and municipalities … and, off the record, many will attest, selling one’s home. If sainthood itself is akin to attaining an honorary rank of distinction, being awarded patronage is like earning clusters on top of canonization. In actuality, patronage is little more than specialization of prayer based on that saint’s unique personality and manner. Since St. Genesius was an actor, it is only natural that actors feel he can more closely relate to, and pray for, the needs of a performer than, say, St. Lydwine, who hailed from Holland and fell ill after an ice skating accident. She, unsurprisingly, is Patroness of Ice Skaters and the chronically ill.
Many canonized saints are patrons of the locations they are most closely associated with. St. Patrick has Ireland (though he was born in Britain) and St. Bridget has Sweden. A good number of saints are patrons of their geographic see. Such is the case with our namesake, St. Thorlak, born and raised in Iceland, where he would elevate the sanctity of this remote nation in the sixty years he lived.
And so, here we are, at the intersection of autism and spirituality. Whom shall we call upon in patronage? Who is the Patron Saint of Autistic People, that we might turn to that saint for inspiration, prayer, encouragement, and enlightenment?
(That’s right, not even Thorlak. There is currently no Patron Saint of Autistic People.)
To be most fair, there has never been as widespread an understanding of autism as what has taken shape in the past decade. Autism is an elusive and enigmatic condition that has run the gamut from shame to celebration over its years as a diagnosis. While we as a human race still have plenty to learn (and plenty of stereotypes to reconsider) about autistic thinking and neurodiversity, we find ourselves at a point in time more favorable toward autism than ever before. As life catches up with this trend, so, too, Catholics worldwide are beginning to understand and recognize autism as a valid and distinct variation within the community. It seems a ripe time to consider who might be “the” saint worthy of that official designation, “Patron Saint of Autistic People.”
We, of course, already consider St. Thorlak as our patron here, and, most definitely, a patron of autism. There is nothing preventing him from being that to us and to all who turn to him for inspiration and spiritual guidance. His manner and way of living feel autistic, sound autistic, and very likely would have been called autistic, had such a word existed in his time. Many autistics use his way as a pattern for connecting to God more meaningfully… for learning how to find strength in vulnerability… for coping with the days when overload tries to destroy our sense of wellbeing… for relating to people who do not relate to us… for understanding, recognizing, addressing and preventing the spiritual starvation many of us encounter on a daily basis.
As the Octave of Pentecost reaches its close, now is a very acceptable time for the Holy Spirit, through the workings of the Holy Catholic Church, to lead the community here toward the Communion of Saints. In designating a Patron Saint of Autistic People, the Church will both recognize the gifts brought by the autistic community to the Kingdom of God, and offer that same community the gift of our own decorated, saintly champion with clusters.
Let us pray that it happens soon!
JOIN YOUR VOICE TO THE CAUSE!
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is compiling a portfolio of written notes from readers around the world, stating why they feel St. Thorlak deserves the title Patron Saint of Autistic People. Specifically, we are seeking to answer the question, “In what way is St. Thorlak a patron for autistic persons?” Why St. Thorlak? Why autism? Notes need only be brief and heartfelt, and would be very greatly appreciated as we build our case. If you are moved to contribute, please send your note to email@example.com Thank you!
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak