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Portrait of Christ in the lives of today’s saints

by Harold Fickett
Doubleday, 288 pages, $22.95


Fr. Richard McBrien concludes his recently released Lives of the Saints with these words: “Saints are ordinary people who happen to live the gospel in extraordinary ways.”

The value of attending to lives of the saints, says Protestant theologian Sally McFague, “is not to mimic them but to pass back to one’s own life and read it from a new and different perspective -- the perspective of God’s abundant life for all.”

Harold Fickett writes The Living Christ: The Extraordinary Lives of Today’s Spiritual Heroes because he believes that exemplars of the Christian faith enchant the public imagination. One of the best ways for people to come to know and follow Jesus is to discover him at work in the lives of Christ-like individuals. The value of taking a saint-as-icon approach, whereby we see Jesus modeled through the lives of real people, is as applicable today as it has been for two millennia.

So Fickett, a journalist and religious writer based in Texas, set out to draw a portrait of the living Christ through contemporary stories of his followers. He did his homework and thought through what he had known of the various aspects of Jesus’ personality as presented in the gospels. He sought to isolate key characteristics of Jesus’ ministry.

The author concluded that Jesus came not so much to deliver a teaching as to inaugurate the final reconciliation of humankind to God. Jesus can be best understood by observing his differing behaviors through that one edifying end. Fickett visited and talked with people whose stories and behavior demonstrated roles Christ might play were he alive now.

As he interviewed candidates worldwide Fickett found that, just like the classic saints, contemporary saints have their foibles and weaknesses, whether out in the open or secretly. “The already redeemed and yet still sinful character of the believer is at the core of the Christian tradition,” he writes. “We are all wounded healers. ... My subjects were conscious -- sometimes overly conscious -- of how their own debilities might come through far more clearly than any reflection of Christ’s character.”

Fickett creates profiles of remarkable contemporary believers in the context of their work with other people. He uses fictional techniques, reportage and other narrative devices with his subjects.

This exercise renewed for Fickett the meaning of the gospels. Taken together, what he builds is a comprehensive portrait of the living Christ. He hopes that his readers will share his enthusiasm.

Six chapters introduce his multicultural and ecumenical cross section of modern saints. Subject titles range from the wayfarer, the healer and the man of prayer, to the liberator, the prophet and the martyr.

Pentecostal, evangelical and mainline Protestant representatives are highlighted alongside a Roman Catholic layperson, a priest and the current pope. A concluding chapter describes how an Orthodox parish of Lebanese heritage in Wichita, Kan., points modern Americans to Christ through the drama of its timeless liturgy.

Fickett’s skill as a journalist and spiritual writer leads the reader through such varied narratives as that of the hardened truck driver who finds Christ as the answer to his profound loneliness. A priest discovered his charism of healing decades ago, only to renounce it at the request of his superiors, and now ministers to thousands who have come to trust him as a God-focused miracle worker. A thrice-divorced woman painstakingly develops one of the most spectacular prayer lives possible. Her apparitions of the Holy Family have had a salutary effect on family life generally. Her daily visions, scientifically verified as authentic, have become a gift to all believers.

Readers are introduced to a Baptist career missionary in Thailand who spearheads a “safe house” movement for the liberation of vulnerable young women lured from the countryside and enticed into the sex tourist trade. John Paul II is portrayed as a prophetic advocate of apology and reconciliation for redeeming centuries of church bias against the Jewish people. Three indigenous evangelical Protestant leaders are martyred for the faith in the Muslim-dominated theocracy of Iran.

Fickett’s theological stance is moderate and mainstream. He writes for a broad readership that includes within its purview evangelical Protestants and a general Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian audience.

His approach to the Bible avoids the extremes of fundamentalism and radical biblical criticism while affirming classic scriptural themes. His centrist position may ruffle conservative Catholics on the one hand and liberal Protestants on the other.

What appeals are his stories that attract readers wanting to discern and affirm the Spirit of God at work across a wide ecclesial and theological spectrum.

The Living Christ is a worthy subject for parish and ecumenical book studies. It will provide stimulating, private devotional reading for those valuing an integration of the spiritual and the practical.

Wayne A. Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002