An interesting thing happened in a 9th grade Confirmation class I taught recently.
In the second class of a ten-week curriculum, I handed out a book about the saints to each student. I asked them look through it and to choose a saint whom they admired—perhaps taking that saint’s name as their own on Confirmation day. What happened next was the interesting part. The following week, ninety percent of the class had read the book from cover to cover, had chosen a saint, and wanted to know more. In fact, some their friends from other Confirmation classes down the hall came in and asked if they too could have a book of saints to read.
In short, they ate it up.
Here was something they had never heard of—real people who lived ordinary lives, had done extraordinary things for God and neighbor, and had gained heaven. Some were older people, some were priests and nuns, and some were even their own age! It was as though a light bulb had been turned on, and I would venture to say that the saints and their stories struck a chord with those teenagers more than any other point I made in that ten-week period.
Whatever happened to the saints? As a child, they were a basic part of my Catholic education, and they fascinated me. As an adult, they fascinate me still. During the past 20 years or so of religious education, however, it seem the saints and their stories have either been relegated to the background or eliminated altogether as irrelevant in the course of our daily lives.
But in our world where heroes are absent or only too human, we need the example of these very human saints to show us how to gain heaven in spite of our own faults and failings. Thomas Merton once wrote, “The saints quickly become stereotyped in the mind of the average Christian … essentially an image without the slightest moral flaw" (Life and Holiness, 1963). And while the legendary status of some saints finds us hard pressed to find a flaw, nevertheless it is the humanity of all the saints in their struggle for sanctity that draws us to them.
Consider some the better-known saints. Joan of Arc lived the life of a simple shepherdess until the age of 17 when her heavenly Voices commanded that she save her beloved France from the hands of the English. Unable to read or write, with no knowledge of warfare or even how to ride a horse, Joan led an army against England and defeated them in every battle. Convinced of the divinity of her mission, she boldly faced kings, bishops and judges to carry out her commands—finally paying for her loyalty with her life at the stake. Should I mention that she was only 19 at the time of her death and still could not read or write?
In contrast, consider gentle Joseph, earthly father and protector of God made Man and of the Blessed Mother. While not called to shine on the world stage, he faced agonizing questions about the will of God in his lifetime. Despite his doubts about the propriety of an impending marriage to an expectant fiancée, he obeyed without question God’s loving direction to take Mary into his home as his wife. He obeyed again when instructed by an angelic messenger to flee with his wife and Child to safety in Egypt. What must have been the reaction of friends and family in these instances to the decisions Joseph made as head of the Holy Family? Despite his upright reputation in the community, he must have faced questions and even ridicule. Joseph’s life as a carpenter in Nazareth was one of skill and service, but more and more he became aware of the marvelous gift bestowed on him by God. He died in obscurity but found glory in heaven where he would await the death and rising of Our Lord and the Assumption of his equally obedient spouse.
In order to truly appreciate the importance of the saints in our lives, we must believe in our own worth as children of God. We must believe that heaven is our ultimate goal and that attaining it is a full-time pursuit—not something we do in our spare time.
Is it possible, as sinners all, to even hope for success in our pursuit? We need only to look to the saints to realize that you and I are not the first to struggle, fall, and stand up again. We take heart in the story of Peter, that very real, very human, very boisterous fisherman. Who was it that swore he would stand by Our Lord always, failed miserably to do so in Our Lord’s ultimate hour of need, and wept bitterly at his failure? Yet to whom did Our Lord entrust the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whom did he proclaim as the rock on which his Church would be built? Our hope stems from the humanity of Peter with which we readily identify. Our Lord did not choose that stereotypical saint of folded hands and eyes heavenward that Thomas Merton describes. Instead, He chose someone who, despite his best intentions for the Lord, just couldn’t get it right time and time again. Yet Peter’s sanctity came out of his very real love of the Lord that made him try again and again.
Why is it that certain saints appeal to our hearts more than others? The simple answer is that our favorites reveal a struggle similar to our own. Each saint presents a different pathway to heaven. God provides us with the ultimate “road map” to heaven in the life Our Lord, but he provides road maps in the lives of each of the saints as well. By virtue of their uniquely individual struggles, the saints also serve us by way of their intercession before God. Often misunderstood, the intercession of the saints can provide relief from the daunting task of appealing directly to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While Our Lord was the ultimate saint in His human nature, He was like us in all things but sin—a very big “but.” If sin is the stumbling stone, we can look to the saints and their stumbling stones to guide us along the way. (In some cases, they even provide us with their example of appealing to a saint who has gone before them.) In the saints, God takes the opportunity to spread the wealth, as it were—to pass His loving kindness through those who are “specialists” in our particular needs and to present those needs to Him.
Consider Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life in a concentration camp in order to save a fellow prisoner. Consider Mary Magdalene, who sought Our Lord in her sinfulness, who followed Him to the Cross, and who became the Apostle to the Apostles—the first to see the risen Lord on Easter morning. Consider Paul, once known as Saul, who persecuted the Church of Christ with all the strength he possessed, only to become the possession of its Holy Founder. Consider Martha, that wonderful domestic saint who couldn’t reconcile her sister’s contemplative lifestyle with her own overly busy list of chores. Consider Stephen, whose martyrdom celebrated on the heels of Christmas stands in violent contrast to the peace of the Lord’s birth. Consider Clare, who ran away from home and an impending marriage to follow Francis in a life of poverty and humility. For that matter, consider Francis, who preceded her, giving up wealth and comfort to serve God as a humble peasant.
While we may not be called upon to leave our families, face an army, or give up our lives in martyrdom, we are called to show the world how to strive for holiness in our earthly life with an eye toward heaven. What a powerful example the saints provide!
There are saints we read about in books and hold in our hearts – and there are saints we simply hold in our hearts. The saints who have gone before us in the persons of our fathers, our mothers, brothers and sisters, grandparents and friends—while not canonized by the Church—stand before the throne of God as well, interceding for us in our needs. In order to find heroes in our lifetime, we need only to look to those people who have passed through our own lives. They were, in most cases, ordinary people who spent their lives doing the best they could for God, even if they didn’t realize it themselves. They struggled, they fell, they got up again. Relegated to the background? Irrelevant? Hardly. When they left us, God gave them the ultimate reward. As His lesser-known saints, they also merited the chance to help us in our daily struggle to do the best for God—and to hope in joining their ranks one day as well.
Not too long after my students discovered the saints, one of my fellow teachers approached me and said she didn’t think she was going to teach her students about them. She admitted she’d never been sure why the saints were important, and told me she felt uncomfortable even telling her students about them. How sad. In the course of her own religious education, someone had failed to convey to this woman one of the most captivating and inspirational aspects of the faith. In depriving her students of the lives of the saints, she missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these holy men and women—the very same Holy Spirit who would be prompting her students in the near future on Confirmation day.
The fortitude of Elizabeth Seton and Frances Xavier Cabrini; the modesty and courage of Maria Goretti; the piety of Isidore the farmer and Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows; the generosity of Martin of Tours; the kindness of Elizabeth of Hungary and John Vianney; the gentleness of Therese of Lisieux; the faithfulness of John the Evangelist. In the saints, my Confirmation students were able to recognize in concrete ways the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit they were preparing to receive.
Taking the example of the saints, they could look at their surroundings and find instances of those gifts and fruits (or lack thereof) in their daily lives. They could begin to recognize the unique talents and virtues that God had bestowed on them and how He was calling them to put those talents to work. They could also see the difficulties they might face in bringing the Lord’s message to a world that often does not want to hear it. My students now knew that they could strive to make a difference in the world—it was the saints who helped them to realize that.
What a shame it would have been if they’d never heard of them.
The above article by June Archer first appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review in June 1999. Reprinted with the author's permission.