On October 28 we celebrate the feast day of those least known of the apostles — Saints Simon and Jude. In fact, the Gospel writers identify these men not by telling us who they are, but by telling us who they are not.
Simon is called “the Zealot” so that we know he is not Simon Peter. And Jude is identified in the Gospels as “Judas Thaddeus” to differentiate him from the other Judas—Judas Iscariot, the betrayer. Even the shorter name with which we are familiar, “Jude,” was probably popularized to make the difference between the two Judas’ clearer.
What little we know about Simon is contained in that surname — “the Zealot.” It suggests that Simon was regarded by his brethren as a man of ardor, passion, intensity. The word itself comes from the Greek word Zelos for “boiling”—a zealot is a “man on fire.” And here, surely, we’re up against a stumbling block for appreciating Simon. In our day, a religious “zealot” is a man or woman to be feared, because an excess of religiosity leads to domination and brutality. Images of fanatics come to mind: the Crusades, the wars of religion, the attacks of September 11.
But here Saint Jude comes to the rescue of Saint Simon, to show us the power of religious zeal to transform. For zeal is nothing if not an intense desire to protect and uphold what we most love.
Yet, there are two sides to zeal. When we passionately love an abstract “idea”—an exalted version of the ideal society, for example — then zeal can lead to violence and murder. Persons are slaughtered for the sake of ideology—think Nazism, the great purges in the name of Communism, the genocidal atrocities of the twentieth century.
But zeal can also arise from a desire to secure the good of a person or a group of persons. And, indeed, our faith is centered on a person, Jesus, who directs us to other persons—the poor, sick, lame, sinners. The sort of zeal that aims to protect the least among us is the heart of the work of the saints, as represented by Saint Jude, the patron of “impossible causes.”
No one knows exactly how Jude earned this title, but it is thought that, of all the Apostles, Christians were least likely to turn to him precisely because he shared the name of the Apostle who betrayed Our Lord. You prayed to Jude when prayers to all the other Apostles had failed. The fact that those who turned to Jude as a last resort received answers, cures and miracles, is the reason that today Jude has such a great following. He shows himself to be a zealot, too—a man with a passion for the desperate, a champion of the abandoned.
But could even this zeal—the desire to bind up the wounds of the incurably wounded—become dangerous? Many a person with a desire to help one disenfranchised person has willingly robbed from another. Many a do-gooder has done great wrong for the sake of compassion.
So what are we to think of religious zeal? Should we back away from such passion, relegating zeal to a bygone era? What keeps religious fervor from becoming a force of destruction?
Here we must go deeper, to the first and most important object of our zeal. The saints know, better than all of us, that zeal must be directed, above all, at ourselves. Before I can serve the impossible causes, I must admit that I am one myself.
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is a great teacher in this regard. Few saints exude religious zeal like she did. Her desire to do God’s will leaps off the pages of her writing. But Elizabeth’s religious zeal is grounded in the cry of her heart. Her zeal is first of all for her own salvation. She sees herself not as a champion but as a penitent—weak, hungry, terribly in need. And in Christ she finds her liberation and her salvation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her notes about her experience of receiving Communion, which became her strength and consolation when she entered the Catholic Church.
She once wrote: “A most precious Communion preceded by alarm and thoughts of fear—but all settled in one thought: how He loves and welcomes the poor and desolate.” The emphasis is Elizabeth’s. She sees her own lowliness, her pathos, and at the same time, the answer and consolation that is her Christ. She holds nothing back from him. And he holds nothing back from her.
This theme appears throughout St. Elizabeth Ann’s writings. She truly saw herself as profoundly needy, as an “impossible cause.” Hers is the zeal that never leads to terror or tyranny, because its focus is on the transformation of the soul, and submission to Christ, the divine Master. Hers is a zeal we can all aspire to, because who among us isn’t struggling in some way—wracked by anxieties, carrying invisible burdens, or plagued by nighttime demons?
Let us, like Simon, become zealots. Like Jude, let us make our focus the desperate and the abandoned. And let us, like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, recognize that we ourselves are the most desperate and abandoned of all. Let us place ourselves in the way of God’s mercy. And hold nothing back.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Image: Church of Saint-Simon Saint Jude (1771), Alsace; Bas-Rhin; Ottrot
This reflection was originally published in 2019.