There isn’t much I want to be “when I grow up.” In practical terms, I’d like to travel more, help humanity, and perhaps one day be a mother. These, however, are not true ends: they are passing points. I can reach each of these aims and still have many miles of life ahead of me. Where, then, am I ultimately headed?
To be honest, I really only have one goal: to be a saint.
It’s not a typical answer nowadays, and it certainly does not seem sufficient to all my relatives who want to know what my twenty-two year-oldself intends to do with my life, but it’s the best I’ve got. And I don’t see how any other response could be better for me.
Why Have Saints?
I know that sainthood is a tricky subject. Both in the outside world and within the Christian community, Catholicism’s fascination with saints is viewed as anywhere from befuddling to heretical. In the world at large, because no normal person could be so into religion like that, right? In other Christian denominations, because surely it isn’t possible that mere humans deserve such status? Saints, when recognized as saints, make people uncomfortable.
Yet, millions of Catholics find solace in the saints. They are our role models, our friends, our teammates, our cheerleaders, our brothers and sisters, our advocates, and, above all, our fellow warriors. They are those who have fought for a life in Christ and been successful. Against all efforts of the world to instill complacency, their hearts were won forevermore by the Lord. 1
Sainthood is Not Perfection
Now, here I would like to clear up a common misuse of the word “saint.” When used colloquially — “So-and-so is such a saint!” — “saint” is seen to refer to someone we find faultless, or nearly so. True merit of the title, however, is hardly this. Rather, it’s frequently the opposite. From Peter (denied Christ only to later become a great evangelizer and martyr) to Augustine (a long-time womanizing bachelor), Mary of Egypt (former prostitute) to Teresa of Ávila (preoccupied with a promiscuous and indulgent lifestyle before entering the convent), saints have many a fault. Their saintliness lies not in their victorious abstention from sin but in their continual and confident surrender to God’s mercy.
Sainthood is not perfection. As a beautifully brutal contemporary spiritual warrior made clear to me recently, “identity is not rooted in the sum of one’s aptitudes.” 2 Accordingly, saints are not saints because they possess some crazy sort of spiritual superpowers that make them better than the rest of us.
No, the beauty of the saints is that they are built of the exact same elements as us.
We, as Catholics, look to them for assistance because they once stood where we do. They, too, struggled with fear, doubt, temptation, hormones, anger, jealousy, anxiety, and sorrow. They lived in the world we do, with all our weaknesses and frailties, and, still, held their place at the foot of the cross. And they oh so fervently wish for us to join them.
Those Crazy Catholics
It is time, then, to address an even bigger misconception in regards to Catholicism’s relation to them. In short: no, we do not worship the saints. If you’ve ever wondered this and asked a Catholic you know about it, you have likely heard that assertion before. But here is why: we do not worship the saints because we cannot. They are, after all, human. To worship them, therefore, would be not simply a disordered form of devotion but also a futile one, since worship of any being (or object, re: Exodus: 32 3) other than God is not life-giving. 4
Our relation to saints is inherently different from our relation to God because they are not divine; they provide none of the Lord’s goodness, beauty, and truth of their own accord. Rather, their being demonstrates with precious clarity the capacity of the human soul to reflect the goodness, truth, and beauty of God. They show to us that which lies in store for us in this life and the next if we give ourselves fully, freely, and wholly to the Lord. By their lives and deaths, the saints model heroic virtue and faith in God even unto martyrdom. Because of this, we are confident that God, in His mercy, has accepted them into the Heavenly Kingdom.
Our Holy Teammates
As such, the saints are poised to serve not only as models but also as intercessors—those who petition the Lord in prayer on our behalf. The Catechism states, “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness.” 5 Having already attained heaven, then, the saints are that much more united to Christ. Consequently, out of their fraternal concern they can help us grow closer to Him as well. 6 This is, in fact, an extension of the precious unity found in the communion of the Church here on earth:
Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself. 7
In the same way that we build Christian community within our families, friendships, parishes, and churches in order to grow closer to the Lord, the saints help us to learn and strive to know,love, and serve God ever better. More so than our brothers and sisters on earth, though, the saints are chiefly devoted to the fraternal cause for salvation.
Our Fervent Advocates
Having preceded us into the Kingdom, the saints are free of mortal concerns. The entirety of their time and efforts is, then, consecrated to the glory of God, part of which includes caring for those of His children left on earth through prayer. Just as we are striving for holiness on this side of the gates, they are praying that we may grow in holiness from the other. Herein lies the chief value of saints, not that they lived a mortal life worthy of eternal life but that, having done so, they may now help others do the same: “Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.” 8
Therefore, when we invoke the saints in our prayer, we give further honor and glory to the Lord. This is because we are not simply directing prayer to the Lord, Our God, but also engaging our brothers and sisters of eternal rest in fulfilling the mission and purpose which God has entrusted to them. We are led closer to Christ in hopes that one day, we, too, may lead others closer to Christ even once we have left this earth. In this is the beauty of the saints, and to this I will my soul and the souls of all of you.
Where to From Here?
To be a saint is no small thing. But it is comprised of small things, brief moments and acts of the will that shape life and seek an end: the glory of life eternal with God. I do not pretend to know what a saintly life feels like. I cannot say for certain whom of us is well on our way. But I do know this: in each of us is written the potential for greatness. Out of the smallness of our dust 9, God wills the triumph of His love. If we but hear that call and choose to respond, He will make of us saints.
Cover Photo by Andrew Smithson.