By Michael Rossmann, SJ
While the Saints, as in the recent Super Bowl champions, are more popular than ever, many young people do not often think of the other saints.
In one homily I heard, the priest-professor first asked us about our role models. When he started teaching 40 years ago, most of his students would name a saint or a prominent historical figure as their role models, whereas today, virtually everyone mentions a family member or close friend, with one’s mother being by far the most popular selection. Sure enough, out of the roughly 40 young adults to whom he was giving this homily, the lone seminarian was the one person who had chosen a saint.
While there are many positive aspects of the democratization of those who really inspire us, and while being a great mother is of course something to celebrate, I think about what could be lost in downplaying the truly great figures of our church and in relegating saints to stained glass and not letting their stories move us and ultimately point us to God.
In working with young people, I have encountered some who struggle to hope and suffer from a profound sense of meaninglessness in their lives. Ultimately, it is the love of God that grounds our hope, but this love has to be felt, tasted and experienced. Ideally, we would all feel this through a great family environment and deep friendships, but in a time when people are more connected technologically with others than ever before, many are still profoundly lonely. God is our hope, but in order to experience this absolute hope, as Pope Benedict writes in his encyclical Spe Salvi, “we need witnesses — martyrs — who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way.”
One could possibly contend that the now 82-year-old Pope Benedict is simply out of touch with young people today in advocating for a return to reading about the lives of “pious” saints, when realistically people look to their loved ones to engender hope for them. And yet, while it may take more work to get young people to pay attention to these figures because of the noise of society, Pope Benedict’s analysis could be deeply valuable and especially helpful for one desiring to instill hope in others. The lives of saints can still move us.
For me, personally, even though I had a grandmother with an intense devotion to St. Anthony, I never really thought about saints — quite normal for someone of my generation. It was only after joining the Jesuits and being expected to read about our legendary figures that Ignatius of Loyola and Alberto Hurtado became my spiritual friends and guides. These were very real people who faced rejection and heartache and internalized the anguish of the poor, but also found the joy that comes from laboring with God in the world. They moved from being figures depicted in stained glass to characters of flesh and bone who were dealing with many of the same issues and asking many of the same questions I was.
Additionally, in working at a largely Mexican-American high school and in getting to know a number of recently arrived Mexican immigrants at several parishes, I saw the significance of Our Lady of Guadalupe for many students and young immigrants and how they truly felt her presence in the lives of their families. Of course, the love of God and the hope that it establishes is always there, but the Virgin of Guadalupe pointed the way to that love and hope for these young people, just as the other saints can do this when we are open to their witness.
While many young Catholics today may not frequently think about the saints apart from those in New Orleans, I am convinced that just as they have been significant for generations of Catholics before, they can continue to be for those of my generation. While initially it may take more creative effort to show them that these figures are relevant, it is exactly at this time when so many struggle to hope and find meaning that the saints can be deeply valuable guides.
(Michael Rossmann is a graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. In August, he professed vows in the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)