Saints all around
It’s late for this, since the event took place almost two weeks ago, but a point must be made. Popes John XXIII and John Paul II did not “become” saints on April 27; nor were they “made” saints by the Catholic Church that Sunday, as news stories said. What the Church did that day in a lavish ceremony at the Vatican in Rome was declare a belief that those two men are enjoying the reward for their lives with God.
They “became” saints, they were “made” saints, in their lives on earth. They are not different from any of us in that respect. Saint-making is what we do as we serve others in the pattern of Jesus, especially others who are supposedly beneath us, like little children, and those who are different, even hostile; the “strangers” of the world.
When we act for the good of all and every thing and person, we are moving with the grace of God. That is what saints do. The Church is the community of those who encourage and provide means for this kind of self-giving living. When our community sees evidence of it happening in a particular person, we hold a party and call the world to notice.
“See! This is what the reign of God looks like. Not altogether, not completely: none of us can do that. But here is a life directed by the model, Jesus.”
News headlines are frequently off-base when it comes to religious affairs. Generally, the little inaccuracies and distortions aren’t worth noting. Sometimes, though, the life of the Church, and spiritual life itself, is distorted too much. Error and confusion win. Children may be seriously misdirected. Someone needs to set things right.
The French poet and essayist Charles Peguy wrote this before his death 100 years ago in World War I: “Life holds only one tragedy ultimately: not to have been a saint.” Every Christian should say Amen to that. And if it sounds extreme, it’s only because we forget what a radical call we accept in baptism — or we fail to realize what we are called to. Each one of us — store clerks, doctors, cooks, bus drivers, students, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, CEOs — every one of us is called to be a friend of God.
When the Church opens an investigation of someone’s possible sainthood, that person is first called “Servant of God.” Dorothy Day, the American woman who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement, currently has that status because so many people noticed how she gave her life for others. As the evidence of virtues and initiative for the kingdom of God continues to impress, she could be moved up to the status of “Venerable,” then further on to the status of “Blessed” and, finally, sainthood.
This system of formal investigation and official “steps” to sainthood is relatively recent in Church history. From the beginning, local communities simply revered people they knew to be extraordinary models of Christ-like life. The community made the declaration of sainthood by local acclamation and began what we call a “cult” of reverence for that person. Sometimes miracles were part of the evidence; often martyrdom in various ways. These local cults gradually spread until we gained a worldwide cloud of stories showing the many ways to be a servant of God.
Must a person considered for sainthood produce a miracle? That is a current rule, but it’s a flexible rule. Both Popes John XXIII and Francis suspended the usual modern requirement of two miracles for one as they pushed the canonization of people for whom they had special veneration.
Today we tend to squeeze miracles into a small compartment of physical cures. It might be better to think more expansively: notice all signs of life that make sense only if God is the energy; when grace is the only explanation for why a person is like that. There are such signs and such people all around if we have eyes to see.
We should notice the signs in our own lives and be glad.