Reflection for Day 6 – Men & Women of their Times

The halos granted saints in art are not visible in mortal life. They are not demigods who walk upon clouds in this life but flesh-and-blood men and women whose feet tread the same grass and dirt as all mortals. The testimony about the saints should not project sanctity as something that is out-of-reach, but rather as a vital element of the calling of every Christian believer. If one is not committed to becoming a saint then any profession of faith is a sham. The problem with deifying saints is twofold. First, such action is a deception because these are ordinary men and women made exceptional by their response to grace in the settings where they find themselves. Second, such an attitude of placing saints on pedestals sends the message that holiness is out of reach for most of us. I have displayed pictures of saints in church as a testimony of our legacy of religious heroes. Lately I have played with the idea of placing a framed mirror in the entryway and telling everyone to look upon the newest saint in the church. The notion is that we should see ourselves as saints in the making.

Saints are often innovators to religious movements. True saints are catalysts for holiness in others.  Our Lord, as the All Holy One, inspires many men and women to follow him. Of course, that which attracts some also repels others. Saints routinely draw kindred spirits to themselves along with encountering resistance from those who will oppose them. The lesson is proven again and again— the darkness cannot stand the light, it will do whatever it can to extinguish the burning candle.

Holiness is the sharing of the divine presence and thus something of God’s attributes.  What does this mean? God is ultimately the Creator who keeps all things in existence. Any who would possess “the otherness” of God that we call holiness will necessarily find themselves infused with the “creative” spark. The saints build up rather than tear down. They create rather than destroy. 

While we like to imagine saints as men and women who are otherworldly, in truth they are grounded to their times and situations. Yes, they proclaim the kingdom by their words and actions, but everything is mediated through the world they know and share with others. What it means to be a saint and a fisher of men in a technological world is not the same as in first or second century AD Jerusalem or in the fading hub of the Roman Empire or in a medieval agrarian society ruled by princes. That is why the specificity of doctrines about God, the sacraments and the Church tend to be more specific and stable or complete than social and moral doctrines. The divine right of kings means little when there are few or no kings. A union of church and state might be preferred in a Catholic world but in a more pluralistic society, religious liberty might best preserve the rights and assets of the true faith.  The Church must extrapolate from her basic principles when it comes to new ethical questions about in vitro fertilization, DNA manipulation and cloning. Computers and the internet can become incredible tools for evangelization and yet they also pose pressing dangers. Can we Christianize social media or at least tame its more savage tendencies? The saints must navigate in the times and worlds where they find themselves.  

Further, saintliness does not have to be exotic or paraded before others. Quiet lives can be holy. Most saints will never be canonized. Holiness can be found in being a good wife and mother, in being a faithful husband and father, in being a friend who cares about others more than self, in being a worker or student who acts with integrity and is responsible to his or her state of life. As I have said so many times, the saints show us many ways to follow in the one way of Christ.

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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