Our theme for assemblies this term is integrity. For me, it’s one of the most important topics to discuss with young adults; I believe all of the young people I spend every day with have the potential to change the world, but if we want them to be a force for good then we have to equip them to head into that world ready to face life’s challenges with complete integrity.
Probably the best definition of integrity I’ve heard is this – making what’s on the inside, match what’s on the outside. We can put that into practice in lots of different ways, whatever our point of departure. It might be as straightforward as striving to fulfil our potential or, to borrow from my old school motto, it might be about committing to show our faith in the way that we live.
In a former life I was based at a major gallery in London, working mostly with their religious art. In that time, I learnt a lot about the lives of the saints and if we’re thinking about examples of integrity, that seems as good a place as any to begin. Saints are, by and large, ordinary people who do extraordinary things. What they all have in common, is a real sense of integrity.
St Jerome wasn’t born into a Christian family. As he was growing up he was incredibly sceptical of Christianity but when he moved to Rome to study, he was persuaded that it was something worthwhile and he converted. He was a student in Rome, and, not unlike the student life today, that meant a life of excess. As much as he enjoyed it, he was always left feeling guilty. Eventually, he turned his back on that lifestyle. He moved to Chalcis and became a hermit, where he completed his most famous work – translating the Bible into latin. It wasn’t easy, but integrity won out. He gave up everything to live the life he felt called to lead, not the life expected of him.
For Peter Martyr, a similar sort of integrity cost him his life. He was born in Verona into a family and wider community who were starting to break away from the teachings of the church. He dedicated his life to calling out Catholics who professes faith but didn’t act on it. The challenge he laid down made some people uncomfortable, and he was assassinated by Milanese Cathars on his way to preach in Milan. He was prepared to die rather than compromise his integrity.
St. Lawrence felt the same. He was arrested for giving away the riches of corrupt bishops to the poor. He refused to accept he had done anything wrong and was sentenced to death on a gridiron. Even as he was held over the flames they gave him the chance to admit he was wrong. Instead, he allegedly used his last words to say, “Turn me over; that side’s done.” I like St. Lawrence – integrity and a sense of humour.
At risk of veering towards my favourite topic the F word again, female saints are generally saints because they managed to maintain their integrity in the face of men being terrible. St. Catherine was something of a proto-nun. In a time when women didn’t have choice in the matter, she decided she didn’t want to get married, she wanted to dedicate her life to God and convert people to Christianity. One man who she tried unsuccessfully to convert decided that the best way to reign her in would be to marry her and force her to stop being Christian. He didn’t take her refusal very well, and decided to imprison her and torture her into death or submission by breaking wheel. She remained true to herself though, and her faith was apparently so strong that when they strapped her to the wheel it exploded (hence we have the fireworks Catherine Wheels today).
St. Lucy also had man trouble. She was a devout Christian, relentlessly pursued by a committed pagan who also wanted to marry and covert her. She would not compromise her integrity though. Legend has it that a letter telling her how beautiful her eyes were was the final straw; she plucked out her own eyes and sent the messenger back with them, telling him that if he liked them that much he could have them, but never her. Integrity to the extreme, some might say.
Finally, St. Edward. Edward is known as the Confessor because he dedicated his life to confessing his faith, regardless of the personal consequences. In other words, he lived a life of complete integrity. He lived much of his life balancing his devotion to his Christian beliefs with his commitment to seeing his subjects. This is summed up by the story of the ring: Edward had a great devotion to St. John and was dedicating a chapel to him in Essex when a poor man approached him and asked for alms. Edward had no money with him, and no time to get any without missing the service, so, to keep his commitment to both, he gave the man his sapphire ring and went on his way. Legend goes that years later two English Pilgrims stranded in the Holy Land were helped by an old man who claimed to be St. John. He gave the men the ring Edward had given away to the beggar to return to him, which they did. The moral of the story – integrity has its rewards.
The purpose of all of these stories is not because I’m suggesting you need to be a miracle workers or a martyr to show integrity. But just because many of us are lucky enough to live in parts of the world where we are free to live by our beliefs doesn’t mean we should become complacent about it. However big or small that belief might be I think we have a duty to not waste that privilege, to challenge ourselves to make what we show on the outside match what we believe on the inside.
Pope Francis said, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.” As I said at the beginning, saints are just ordinary people who do extraordinary things. If I have one hope for my young people and myself, it is that we can find the courage and integrity to never settle for being ordinary.