Many stereotypes infect how we imagine saints. Some wrongly suppose they take dark delight in personal suffering, fasting to the point of starvation and inflicting mortification to agonize the body. A loftier view would presume they pray all the time, except to take time out for a good work or quick miracle. Missing from the equation are their personalities and fallibility. We count in our sanctoral calendar both grumpy saints and joyful ones. Yes, the Church seems to have an institutional bias in favor of emaciated saints from the clergy and religious orders. But that is hopefully changing. Mother Church struggles in appreciating lay candidates for canonization like G. K. Chesterton who not only delights in food and drink but writes profusely about them in praising God and his creative bounty.
While all saints are in right relationship with God, each gives a very personal witness of holiness. They are people of their times that discern distinctive ways to live out their love and fidelity. They are a “parable” people living lives that befuddle many around them. And yet they testify to the kingdom. Frequently Church authorities do not know what to do about them. Padre Pio would face suspicion and opposition from leading churchmen. Joan of Arc would challenge quaint notions about womanhood, hear voices and take up arms. Mendicant saints would endure regulation because their begging for the poor becomes a nuisance and embarrasses the rich. The Jesuits so effectively defend the Holy See that they are ironically suppressed from 1750 to 1773, despite having notable saints and martyrs. Pope John Paul II teaches so persuasively regarding the Gospel of Life that he is still the number one target for all who oppose the true dignity of persons and the sanctity of life. Mother Teresa, before and after her death, would earn detraction for her selfless dedication to the poor. It cannot be stressed enough— saints are infused with the folly of God. The most proper or officious of churchmen are even embarrassed by them because there is something incessant about the character of saints that refuses to compromise with the world and to place euphemisms before stark truth. As a case in point, back in 1994, Mother Teresa is urged by higher ups in the Church to avoid saying anything at the national Prayer Breakfast that might divide the gathering and embarrass President and Mrs. Bill Clinton. Instead, she starts off by telling the gathering of 4,000 that abortion is murder. She says: “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. . . . If we remember that God loves us, and that we can love others as He loves us, then America can become a sign of peace for the world.” It should not surprise us that the saints are targeted both by enemies outside the Church and by those within our ranks who are not fully converted. A challenge for us as people of faith is to appreciate the saints with all their wrinkles and to latch on to the real reasons for why they win the prize of heaven. I suspect we often seek to sanitize the saints. We give them quaint associations as pious patrons and trivialize their biographies. Real life by contrast is inherently messy and filled with conflicts. We seek to give order and to sweep under the rug the sullied mess that saints want to clean up for real.
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