Catholic stereotypes, at least the ones I’m familiar with, focus on the negative. Guilt. Sin. Damnation. Exclusion. Superiority. To my surprise, Catholic saints somehow became harbingers of these negative messages. At least, that’s how they are viewed by many more people that I expected. No, let me be clear. I never expected the saints to be viewed in such a manner. But they are, because of a misunderstanding of what it means to venerate these holy people.
I remember a phase one of my younger sisters went through many years ago. I don’t remember the trigger, but one day we come to hear that she was embracing a life of austerity in imitation of the saints. I believe there were particular saints she had in mind, but I don’t remember. She took to wearing a home-made habit, read the lives of the saints, and was ruthless in the rejection of all that she deemed un-saintly. Not only in herself, but in everyone around her. For the sake of a clear example, let’s say that the saint she focused on the most was St. Theresa the Little Flower. During this phase my sister tried desperately to become The Little Flower. She was rejecting who she was as a person and trying to turn into someone else.
For whatever reason, some Catholics and many non-Catholics have the idea that the saints are placed on a pedestal to mock our sinfulness, our weak nature, our mediocrity. They are the ones who got it right, and if we want to get it right we have to write our own Summa or embrace glorious martyrdom. Go big, or go to Hell. I have no idea where this came from, but this is the farthest thing from what the saints, and our practice of venerating them, is about.
Saints are saints for one reason. They embraced God’s will for their life. Simple as that. Some people are called by God to do big things, and God provides the tools for them to accomplish their earthly mission. Not everyone is called to do something splashy. One of my favorite saints is Adelaide of Burgundy. She is a saint because she was a faithful and loving wife and mother, and used her vast wealth to help the poor and build monasteries. That’s it. What she had, she used for God.
Sainthood is about humility. Saints humble themselves, acknowledging that who they are and what they have to offer rightly goes to God first. Saints serve God, not themselves. This is why we venerate them. They are faithful to God above themselves, and because of it produce beautiful fruit.
The saints are meant to inspire us to fulfill the potential God placed in us. We are all given a mission, and our bodies and souls are equipped from the moment of conception to fulfill our unique mission in life. It’s not easy, but it wasn’t easy for the heavy-hitters either. Augustine struggled for decades. Aquinas was called an “ox” in his youth. Jerome was a curmudgeon. Theresa of Avila had “strong leadership qualities”. Many of the saints had debilitating illnesses. We look to these holy people to help us see how our strengths and our weaknesses can be used for God. And then we pray to these same people to support us from heaven. Pray to Jesus for us, St. Monica, that we may be patient with our children. Pray to Jesus for us, St. Francis deSales, that we may accept people where they are on life’s journey. With the saints, through veneration and prayer, we become humble. Through humility we can see God’s will, hear His voice, and become saints ourselves.