Saints and Sainthood: Called to Holiness and Ministry


Antiochian Women’s Month – 3/6/22
Teva Regule, M.Div., Ph.D.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.

What is a saint?  We see them all around us.  Their icons fill our homes and worship places.  We re-tell their stories in word and song.  We reverence them and pray to them.  And yet, when such a question is posed to us, it may give us pause.  What makes a saint?  As Christians, we are called to see Christ in all people.  Those whom we recognize as saints are able to do this.  Moreover, they not only do so, but they reflect God back to us, radiating the love and presence of Christ in our midst.  They can serve as role models for us here on earth and intercessors for us on the other side of death. They are members of our community who transcend time and mortality.

Who are the saints?  Over the course Her history, the Church has recognized a wide variety of people as saints—teachers, apostles—those who proclaim the faith, prophets, confessors—those who suffer for the faith, martyrs—those who have even died for the faith as well as others whose example of holiness and ministry that are worthy of emulation.  In addition, the Church recognizes those persons who have not been officially named as saints, remembering all the holy ones on the Sunday after Pentecost or the Feast of All Saints.  During Antiochian Women’s Month this year we will be focusing on some of the women saints in our midst, sharing a bit about their lives and what they can teach us for our lives.  Today, I would like to focus on two women—one well known to Christians, especially Orthodox and Roman Catholics, and one not so well known to our community, but who has had a profound impact on some of its members.  Both are examples of holiness and ministry.

I would first like to share with you a bit about the saint par excellence of the Church —Mary, the God-bearer or Theotokos—the woman who played the pivotal role in God’s invitation of salvation for the world.  We see her icons everywhere, most often depicting her relationship with Her Son.  We sing songs about her and to her and yet, we know very little about her from the canonical Gospels.  Much of what we know of Mary, especially her early life, is found in the Protoevanglium of James, an apocryphal gospel from the mid 2nd century that tells the story of her early life and marriage to Joseph.  From this text, we learn that she was born to an older couple—Joachim and Anna— who had longed for a child, but like Abraham and Sarah before them, thought it out of reach.  They pray to God for a child and promise to give the child to the priests in the temple if they are blessed with one.  They are so blessed and they keep this promise.  As a young child, Mary is taken to the temple and dedicated to God.  (As Orthodox we continue this practice of dedicating our children to God when we present them to the community and offer them to God during their Churching.)  Mary is nurtured in the temple environs—praying and continually nourished in faith—until she is given over to the protection of Joseph.  As a young woman, she says, “yes” to the invitation to bear God’s son.  The Gospels tell us that she stays with Jesus throughout much of his ministry and stands by Him at the cross.  Tradition suggests that Mary continued to spread the Good news of His message after His Resurrection and Ascension.  

So, what can we learn from the life of the Theotokos that we not only honor, but can emulate?  I would like to uplift four aspects of her life and ministry—her prayerful stillness, her compassion, her leadership and protection, and her royal priesthood.  

Stillness:  What does it mean to be still, to rest in God?  One of the most famous lines from the Confessions of St. Augustine is, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”  (He then spends the next 300 pages of his autobiography unpacking what that means, but succinctly…)   As part of our fallen world, we are often restless.  We are never satisfied.  This can lead us to be overly anxious and unfulfilled.  However, through prayer (i.e. our communication with God), we are able to temper our restlessness and move towards stillness, restoring our primal unity with God.  Mary gives us a prime example.  She is often depicted in prayer, directing her thoughts to God.  We are visually reminded of our proper attitude towards God when we see her depicted in the Orans icon. [re: Icon on back wall of Altar area] It is important to note, though, that stillness does not mean passivity.  Even at the Annunciation, Mary questioned the Angel and made a voluntary decision to conform her life to God’s will. 

Compassion:  The word “compassion” comes from the Latin and literally means “to suffer with.”  To be compassionate means to accompany someone on their journey, to provide support and comfort and to give wise counsel.  Mary stayed with Jesus at the Cross, no doubt giving comfort to her son in his hour of need.  Before He gives up His spirit, Jesus gives her over to John as his mother.  However, on a deeper level, He is giving her to all of us as our mother.  As our mother, Mary feels our pains, hears our cries, shares our tears and brings consolation.  She is our joy in the midst of all of our sorrows. 

Leadership and Protection: As our mother, she is also our leader and protectress.  Death does not separate her from us or end her protection.  One of the most famous hymns that we sing during Lent, “O Champion Leader…” (the kontakion of the Akathist hymn) commemorates her protection of the city of Constantinople from an Arab attack in the 8th century.  The people of the city, besieged by a far superior outside force, prayed to the Theotokos for help.  As the story goes, she appeared above the city walls, striking terror into the invading forces and repelling their attack.  The church dedicated a special feast of victory and thanksgiving to celebrate and commemorate her intercession.  Mary is the one who continues to rescue us from suffering and protects us.    

Royal Priesthood: Finally, our baptismal vocation calls us all to be priests of creation—bearing God within ourselves and offering all of creation back to God. The Theotokos fulfilled the universal vocation of the royal priesthood better than any other person, receiving the divine Son into herself and offering Him to the Father.  

We are all called to holiness and ministry—to become saints. We are all called to stillness, compassion, leadership and protection, and to the royal priesthood.  In addition to the example of Mary, we can look to the saints in our own lives who have embodied these virtues as models to honor and emulate.

I would now like to turn to uplifting the life and ministry of someone who is not officially recognized as a saint of the church, but who gives us a glimpse of the saints in our midst and who has had a profound impact on the lives of many, including some of us here today—Dr. Francine Cardman.  Francine was associate professor of historical theology and church history at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  Sadly, she passed away from cancer this past January.  Dr. Cardman was a scholar of early church history, especially the patristic inheritance of the undivided church with a particular focus on the works of Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea and Tertullian.  Her teaching and writings focused on early Christian ethics and spirituality, ministry and leadership in the church (with a particular focus on the Virgin Martyrs) and questions of gender and justice in contemporary church practice.  She believed Eastern and Western Christians were called to come together and, for many years, served on the Eastern Orthodox–Roman Catholic consultation in the United States.  Like Mary, the Theotokos, she also, I believe, was imbued with the Holy Spirit and showed forth God through her life and work.

Stillness:  Francine was a deeply spiritual person, grounded in the Gospel. She exuded a quiet confidence and radiated God’s love to those around her.  She often ministered to others by example; her classes were rigorous, but loving.  As one of her students remarked, “She pushed her students to strive for a high standard both intellectually and morally.” [1] 

Compassion:  One of the marks of her ministry was her compassion.  I took a class with her many years ago.  During the course of the semester, I shared with her the difficulties I was having discerning my own ministry.  She took the time to share her own struggles with me and encouraged me not to give up.  Since it was a class on Vatican II, she reminded me that many of the most influential figures of Vatican II had been “silenced” in the years preceding the council and yet, it was their voices that ultimately carried the day.

Leadership and Protection: Francine was the epitome of the servant-leader.  For instance, she started the Women’s Theological Center in Boston when there were few venues for women to do theology.  She was known for her mentorship of her students, especially women.  For many, she helped to expand their horizon of what was possible for the ministry of women in the church. [2]

Priesthood:  And finally, although not “ordained” to the sacramental priesthood, Francine was a priest, giving birth to the presence of Christ in our midst.  One of the most salient aspects of Jesus’ ministry was the hope He gave to the world.  Dr. Susan Ashbrook-Harvey (of our sister parish in Pawtucket and colleague of Francine’s) emphasized that Francine spoke often of “practicing hope, however hard things are.” [3]  She hoped for a more just world.  Like the unnamed servant in Isaiah, she strove to usher in the reign of God on earth—one where the wolf is the guest of the lamb, the leopard lies with the kid, the lion eats with the ox and the baby plays with the cobra (Isa.11:6–9)—an Edenic world where all live in harmony and the world is filled with the knowledge of the Lord.  In one of her last public statements, Francine remarked, “I remain confident that the full light of that new day will, in time, break upon us as we struggle together to create a … just world.  But for now, we would do well to remember that it is still only a few hours past dawn.” [4]

Saints are part of our community—on both sides of death.  As one of her students recalls, “My overwhelming impression of Francine was that she was/is a saint… When she passed away, I was really aware of her presence for several days.  I felt both saddened at her passing and the loss that it meant for the church and the academy, but also so comforted by a newfound awareness of how close the saints are to us both while among the living as well as after their passing.” [5]

May the example of the Theotokos and all those saints known to us continue to enrich our lives today and for future generations to come.


End Notes.

[1] Claire Koen, email correspondence, 2 March 2022.

[2] Kyra Limberakis, email correspondence, 25 January 2022.

[3] Susann Ashbook Harvey, email correspondence, 1 March 2022.

[4] Francine Cardman, accessed February 27, 2022,

[5] Claire Koen, email correspondence, 2 March 2022.