Monday, October 29, 2012

Santo Subito: Answering the Call to be a Saint

by Mark Rothe
Master Catechist, Diocese of Arlington

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen. (Apostle's Creed)
Pope Benedict celebrated Mass one week ago for the canonization of seven saints and we are soon approaching the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1. Thus, this is an opportune time to begin a new continuing series on the saints and sainthood.

We are invited in this Year of Faith to rediscover and receive once again the precious gift which is our faith, including studying, meditating upon, and praying in communion with the saints. In this Year, we might seek to learn more about those saints whose names we took in Baptism and/or Confirmation, those saints whose feast day we celebrate on a particular day, those saints for whom we already have a certain affection, and those saints who we know little or nothing about.
By faith, across the centuries, men and women of all ages, whose names are written in the Book of Life (cf. Rev 7:9, 13:8), have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness to the fact that they were Christian: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called. (Porta Fidei 13)
By their lives and testimony of faith, those saints who reside now in Heaven provide excellent examples for us to follow in addition to interceding for us before God. This is an exceedingly good thing. Yet, at the same time, it does present some difficulties for many people.

Author Sherry Weddell recently spoke here at Blessed Sacrament about the great need to remedy the problem of, among other things, the large numbers of people who have a poor understanding of the faith and/or have left the Church for various reasons. In her book, she writes:
As we listened to Catholics talk about their spiritual journey, we began to realize that many assumed there were two basic spiritual "tracks"; "ordinary Catholic" and "saint." (Forming Intentional Disciples, p. 63)
In making such a distinction, despite the universal call to holiness (Lumen Gentium 39 et seq.), many Catholics believe that sainthood is simply beyond them. They hear the epic stories of the saints and those on their way to canonization, such as Blessed Mother Teresa, and they see larger-than-life superheroes. The prospect is daunting -- fearing that sainthood requires a high level of perfection that they simply could never attain, they do not even seek to live as saints. Moreover, they might even scoff and discourage others from wanting to be saints, accusing them of being arrogant and “holier than thou,” or by being overly technical with the term "saints," insisting that the correct Catholic understanding is that only those in heaven are saints, in contrast to a more Protestant view that anyone who has accepted Jesus is already a saint. At the same time, many of these same people assume that they will just naturally go to heaven when they die.

Of course, the truth is that the canonized saints were not superhuman, they were imperfect human beings like the rest of us. They too were works in progress during their lives, they too needed to go to Confession now and then. To be saints, these men and women needed grace. Besides, as popular saints such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux show us, one can be a saint by performing little things with great love. St. Josemaria Escrivá taught that, by united ourselves to the Lord, the work of our everyday lives could be Opus Dei, the work of God, and thus an occasion for our sanctification. Moreover, proper Catholic teaching is that the communion of saints includes the Church Militant (the faithful here on earth), as well as the Church Triumphant (those saints in heaven) (CCC 823, 946-962). While we are still works in progress and our "yes" to God will not be definitive until the end of our worldly journey -- being imperfect humans, there is always the chance that we will fall in sin -- if we persevere in the grace of the Lord, if we seek His forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession so as to be restored to grace when we do sin, then in hope we are already saved, we are already "saints" (See Spe Salvi). So while a measure of humility in considering the lives of holy people is a good thing, we should not go so far as to believe that, because of our limitations, we should not even try to seek sainthood.

Wanting to be a saint is not prideful or arrogant, it is an act of humility. One becomes blessed and obtains the Kingdom of God not by being superhuman, but by being poor in spirit, by putting one’s life into the hands of God, by persevering through it all in His grace. One does not need to be a superhero to be a saint, one needs only to be heroic enough to ask God for that grace. This distinction between “ordinary Catholic” and “saint” is a false distinction. The saints were ordinary people, and ordinary Catholics are called to be, and should be, saints.

However, another part of the problem is the fear that living a holy life means giving up all that makes life fun and exciting. As Pope Benedict has observed,
we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves. In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. . . .

If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them. (Homily on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 2005)
So, here again, the hesitancy to live as a saint is shown to be based on a false assumption. Our own experiences show that this attachment to sin and worldly pleasures and temporal things does not really make us happier. Instead, it makes the world a colder and darker place.

A similar concern is the fear that living a holy life might mean sacrifice. More specifically, some people fear that sainthood is a call to the Cross and suffering. They fear that they will be squarely asked, “Are you willing to suffer and, if need be, die for Christ?” and their impulse is to run away like most of the Apostles did at the Crucifixion. And it is true: Jesus does ask us to take up the Cross, St. Paul speaks of taking upon himself what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Col 1:24), and many saints endured many hardships and much suffering. Some of the more recent suffering saints have included Fr. Damien, Padre Pio, and even St. Bernadette of Lourdes, where so many people have been miraculously healed but she was not. Blessed John Paul II lived his last years crushed with infirmity and Blessed Mother Teresa suffered for many years in the dark night of the soul.

But this hesitancy to live as a saint because of the fear of possible suffering and death, like the other excuses, ultimately shows itself to be completely invalid. The fact is that we are all going to suffer and die. Each and every one of us will suffer at some point, and each of us will die. It is unavoidable. So the question only real question is whether you want to suffer and die with Christ or suffer and die without Him?

In this Year of Faith, we are invited to examine the lives of the saints, to follow their examples in our own lives -- understanding that we are a pilgrim people, mere sojourners who may be in the world, but are not of the world -- so that during our journey we too might grow in holiness, that we too might say “yes” to God’s grace and become saints ourselves. The saints accompany us in that journey, and with the sufferings that they endured, they help us to persevere in our own hardships and sufferings.

We have a large selection of saints to choose from – there are thousands of canonized saints. But on the matter of not being able to personally relate to the saints because of their larger-than-life heroic deeds and on the matter of their accompanying us in our own personal sufferings, it should be conceded that most of those famous saints who we think were “superheroes” and endured suffering did so as part of a community. Indeed, that is how they were known well enough to even be considered for canonization. Fr. Damien suffered with his “fellow lepers,” St. Bernadette suffered in her religious community with the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, Blessed Mother Teresa’s dark night was lived in the company of her fellow sisters, and while St. Francis gave up all worldly possessions, he had the company of his fellow brothers.

In addition to the fact that most of us will never be in the position to do great historic acts, sadly, in our modern world, there is an increasing loss of community. More and more people are living alone, without the love of spouse or children or other family. When they get sick, they are sick on their own, when they suffer, they suffer in solitude, and a great fear of many of them is that they will die alone. Perhaps if we cannot relate to the famous canonized saints, we ought to consider the obscure saints and the non-canonized saints, those anonymous, nameless, faceless everyday people of quiet sainthood?

At the Holy Hour to open the Year of Faith at Blessed Sacrament, Fr. Anthony Killian remarked how, in Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict had mentioned one obscure saint as an example for us to consider, “Lydia the Purpler.”
The heart indicates that the first act by which one comes to faith is God’s gift and the action of grace which acts and transforms the person deep within. The example of Lydia is particularly eloquent in this regard. Saint Luke recounts that, while he was at Philippi, Paul went on the Sabbath to proclaim the Gospel to some women; among them was Lydia and “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). There is an important meaning contained within this expression. Saint Luke teaches that knowing the content to be believed is not sufficient unless the heart, the authentic sacred space within the person, is opened by grace that allows the eyes to see below the surface and to understand that what has been proclaimed is the word of God. (Porta Fidei 10)
Again, the way to sainthood is quiet humility which opens the heart to receive and accept God's grace. Such lowliness does not diminish us, but raises us up.
the way of humility is not the way of renunciation but that of courage. It is not the result of a defeat but the result of a victory of love over selfishness and of grace over sin. In following Christ and imitating Mary, we must have the courage of humility; we must entrust ourselves humbly to the Lord, because only in this way will we be able to become docile instruments in his hands and allow him to do great things in us. The Lord worked great miracles in Mary and in the Saints! . . . [In addition to famous saints,] I am also thinking of numerous young men and women who belong to the ranks of the "anonymous" Saints, but who are not anonymous to God. For him, every individual person is unique, with his or her own name and face. All, and you know it, are called to be Saints! (Homily of Pope Benedict, 2 September 2007)
If it is sometimes difficult to see the lowliness of those famous heroic saints, or is otherwise hard to relate to them, then focus your meditation upon the obscure saints, the anonymous saints who are now triumphant in heaven even if their names are unknown to us here on earth, perhaps most especially those anonymous saints who did not have the benefit of community or a family support structure during their lives, those individuals who lived alone or were homeless, who had to struggle through life but who nevertheless persevered through it all by placing themselves in God's loving hands and His grace, relying upon the communion of those saints in heaven because those who should be saints here on earth took little notice of them. Rather than giving their lives over to despair, rather than leading "lives of quiet desperation" as many do, they gave their lives over to faith, hope, and love, leading a life of quiet sainthood. Some of these people we might see quietly sitting by themselves in church at Sunday Mass.
I must say that also for my personal faith many saints, not all, are true stars in the firmament of history. And I would like to add that for me not only a few great saints whom I love and whom I know well are “signposts”, but precisely also the simple saints, that is, the good people I see in my life who will never be canonized. They are ordinary people, so to speak, without visible heroism but in their everyday goodness I see the truth of faith. This goodness, which they have developed in the faith of the Church, is for me the most reliable apology of Christianity and the sign of where the truth lies. . . . Dear friends, how great and beautiful, as well as simple is the Christian vocation seen in this light! We are all called to holiness: it is the very measure of Christian living. (Pope Benedict, General Audience of 13 April 2011)
In this Year of Faith, in our meditations upon the saints, we should study the lives of those great famous saints, following their example in our pilgrim journey of faith, but we should also not forget those anonymous saints, both the anonymous saints in heaven as well as those anonymous saints who journey alongside us, those everyday good people we might encounter in our lives who are living a holy life if only we would open our eyes to them.

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