T. McKenna reflects on the qualities of a good visitor… Barnabas, Patron Saint of “Visitors From Headquarters” (Acts 11: 19-26)
The idea of patron saints goes way back into Christian history – somebody who walked this earth, lived the faith in a certain way, and now is somehow “on my side,” who is there as a support to me.
More particularly, there’s the saint who is the helper in a given circumstance. I know my older brother was named Gerard because my parents looked to the help of St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of healthy pregnancies. St. Anthony specializes in lost things, St. Blaise in throats, all on down the line.
It’s true enough that the nature of this “helping” can be given some exaggerated meanings – as in, a magical miracle-producer if you but touch her statue, or a kind of lawyer whose backroom influence can get you off when you’re guilty. But there are sounder notions behind the idea of patron saint, one of which is model, example, someone whose life and practice shows the way, especially for a given calling or a special task.
Might I suggest that in this section of Acts, we’ve got someone who could make the grade as the patron saint of “visitations,” a guide for people who make “visits from the center” out to the edges – and make them for the sake of building up the unity and richness of the whole. And so we might include here any delegates (“visitors”) going out from leadership bodies of the Vincentian to their local organizations.
And thus, St. Barnabas. He’s there in Jerusalem, the center of the early Church. Word comes in of something different going on out in the Provinces, something possibly promising but nonetheless because it’s so new, a little scary and even wild and out of control.
And so what happens? The center sends him out to look into it; i.e., to check it out for sure, but hopefully with the final purpose of somehow integrating this new thing into the infant community. In other words, he’s a kind of trouble shooter, but in the end somebody who sets out to do what he can to bring about unity, peace, reconciliation, greater wholeness, clearer witness to the Oneness of the Body of Christ .
And what’s his basic approach in going there? He comes, looking for, (with an eye for) “the grace of God that was in that situation.” He comes with an openness to what it is that’s going on there, with a willingness to hear and see, even if it’s not something familiar to him or even within the framework of his present view of the world. That is, he arrives with a mind to “see the grace of God.” And, when he spots it, he’s able to rejoice. Still further, he makes every effort to encourage the folks on the new scene.
That openness, that receptivity in him, that ability to encourage others, gets a special explanation from the writer. Luke tells us he was able to do these good things because “he was a good person, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.”
The way I hear this is that he was genuine, we might say non-defensive, much his own self, communicating that he was there for the good of both the people he came to serve, while he was at the service of the entire Church.
Also, the verse goes on to say he was also in close touch with the Spirit within and all around him.
Barnabas’ main quality: plain old goodness.
He’s “for others.” That is, he gives off that sense that he’s there not in the main for his own aggrandizement and glory, but for the interests of those he’s being sent to, including the great benefit to them of being in richer unity with the wider community.
And he’s an encourager: not so much a cheer leader as a believable supporter of the good he himself recognizes in these people on that local scene.
So his name Barnabas: “the son [Bar] of encouragement [nabas]”. He’s got certain traits that can qualify him as the patron saint (model/example) of those who “visit from the center,” those who do Visitations. In a word, he’s genuine, has the interests of the people at heart, an eye for the presence of grace (God’s self) on the scene, is an encourager, and is especially aware of and listening to the Holy Spirit within and without.
A last thought. There’s a striking line from the psalm 87 that gets at a key reason for Barnabas’ effectiveness. In it, Yahweh is speaking to His people and says, “My home is within you.” That is, it’s not the people saying “our home is within you, God,” but the reverse. God is saying to them “my home is within you.” That’s what Barnabas recognized, and that’s what he capitalized on and brought to the fore: the grace of God that he saw in them.
“He rejoiced in seeing it. And he encouraged them to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart.”
Barnabas is a patron saint for “visitors from the center.”