Nuns from the Missionaries of Charity attend a special prayer to mark the 111th birth anniversary of Saint Mother Teresa near a banner with her picture at the Mother House in Kolkata, India, on Aug. 26. (Photo: AFP / UCAN files)
All of us look for role models, people whom we admire and whose deeds we’d like to imitate. For centuries in the Catholic Church, the saints fulfilled such a role.
On Nov. 1, we remember all the saints, young and old, ancient and modern, men and women, martyrs, virgins, confessors, scholars, bishops, pastors and missionaries. Those who left an impact on the Church, and others barely known.
The ‘communion of saints’ is a very diverse and heterogeneous gathering indeed. And though every religion has its sages and sants (holy men and women), hardly any other faith has such a wide variety of saints, coming from every age, culture, temperament and background. In this, Catholicism is truly unique.
In early times
The first saints were those disciples whose lives were transformed by Jesus, and who bore public witness to him. Chief of these is Mary, the mother of the Lord, who is honored and prayed to under her many and varied titles (eg. “perpetual help,” “immaculate conception,” “mother most pure,” “our lady of the forsaken,” etc.)
This young woman from an obscure village in first-century Palestine is the most famous woman in history, no doubt about it.
Closely following Mary are Jesus’ disciples and apostles whose names continue to appeal to us — in both their masculine and feminine forms: John/Joan, Paul/Pauline, James/Jane, and so on. And not just their names, the lives and witness of the early martyrs and the virgins — continue to inspire us, as we celebrate their death anniversaries and honor their memory.
Already in early Christianity, we encounter the cult of the heroic saints — the miles Christi (‘soldier of Christ’); George, Martin, and Sebastian — disciplined men, totally focused on Christ as their leader to the point of death (as once the Roman legionaries devoted themselves to the cult of the emperor).
Behind the image of the ‘soldier’ is the sense that the Christian life on earth is a battle, that evil is to be fought against and overcome, and that the saints are here to help us.
The women saints were no less. They were the virgins and martyrs: Agnes, Barbara, Catherine, and Dorothy who were totally dedicated in life and death to Christ as spouse, body and soul. Their relationship to Christ was sponsal, that is, akin to the total surrender of a ‘wife’ to her Lord and Master.
Thus celibacy or virginity (the denial of one’s sexuality and its values) enhanced the religious calling, something still cited in spirituality today. So even if the young woman was forcibly raped before being executed — as some of the martyrs were — the Church still considers them ‘virgins.’ Martyrdom brought a new dimension to Christianity.
The scholar Peter Brown ("The Cult of the Saints") shows us how this cult developed out of the classical values present in the late antique world. Saints become our "spiritual friends," reflecting the warm sense of amicitia (friendship, bonding) that was so cherished by the Roman elites.
Saints also became "patrons," who could mediate before God in the same way that a patron would mediate for a client before a Roman official.
So early Christian piety was indeed a world filled with genuine emotion and profound spirituality.
What do the saints do?
The saints are our exemplars, and they intercede for us.
The saints give us examples of what we should be, by becoming our role models. Remember that the cult of the saints must always be seen in its historical context. Saints interpret the eternal truths of our faith but they do this within a certain time and place.
The power and inspiration of the Gospels become contemporary when we see how the saints lived them in different cultural contexts. So it’s all about how holiness is seen and described at different times in Church history.
Just as the Gospel narratives are the most attractive pages of the New Testament, so are the stories of the saints. When we read the life of Christ and of his saints, very simply, we are transformed. In fact, the example of the saints was often the core of missionary preaching, for everyone more easily identifies with a life heroically lived, than with abstract doctrine and moral codes.
Secondly, the saints intercede for us. All of us have our favorite saints to whom we turn in dire straits — whether it is Anthony for “lost articles,” Jude for “desperate cases,” Joseph “for a happy death” or Mary, mother of Jesus, for everything else.
In this, we Catholics are different from the Protestants who see Christ as the sole and unique mediator between us and God and refuse to give any place to intercessory figures in between (such as the Virgin Mary or the saints). Partly, this was due to the excesses of the indulgences which so corrupted the medieval Church, and led to its Reformation.
If Protestantism stresses immediate access to God through Christ and Christ alone, Catholic theology is heavily ‘sacramental’ (that is, earthly realities lead us to heavenly ones), and so sees holy men and women as a means to God through their prayers for us (intercession), and through offering themselves as models to us (exemplarism).
The greatest saint in this respect is the Blessed Virgin Mary, even if the Catholic tradition has often gone overboard in its devotion to her, sometimes perhaps even ‘deifying her’ in practice.
So, what does it mean to be a saint?
A saint is someone who has come to a deep understanding of the “truth of his/her life” and who has embraced this truth in love.
What is the truth of one’s life? It is to realize why I have been placed here on earth, to understand what brings me happiness, what gives me a sense of purpose and achievement, and to understand and appreciate the person that I am. It is to realize my uniqueness before God.
This truth, this blueprint then becomes the key to my existence.
Most of the time we spend imitating others and pretending to be what we are not. Also, social norms and parental expectations condition us. But all these are pressures, masks, which do not make us free. “The truth alone will make you free”, said Jesus.
It isn’t easy to discover this “truth” because the social pressures to conform are so strong.
However certain “key experiences” in life may ‘unlock’ the truth — certain ‘liminal’ (ie. borderline, threshold) experiences, which may lead one to a “second conversion,” and to see clearly what one must do, and change accordingly.
Thus, for example: Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus; Ignatius Loyola brooding in his convalescence; Mother Teresa on a train to Darjeeling; and Francesco Bernadone in the run-down chapel in Assisi.
When we embrace this truth of our lives and do not resist or reject it; when we come to love ourselves in spite of everything, and enjoy this love, and spread it around, we transform our own lives and the lives of others.
This is all the saints have said, “I am a sinner — but I know I am loved by God.”
That is why too, the saints are so different from each other.
Who are most of our role models today? Celebrities, sports stars, and politicians, who are so similar to each other, each enmeshed in the same kind of lies, obsessed with power, ego-fantasies, and sexual prowess.
The saints are different. They are most comfortable being themselves, with being different.
The Feast of All Saints has a message for all of us today.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News