Why Saints?

An article by Father Robert Wild

The Catholic Church believes not only that everyone is called to be holy, but that people who have lived lives of heroic sanctity should be publicly recognized. She calls this recognition “canonization.” By feasts and devotions, she raises such people before the eyes of the faithful for their admiration, edification and example. This is not to glorify them but to acknowledge and praise the power of Christ’s grace at work in them.

The Canadian Martyrs

The Canadian Martyrs

Many people outside the Church do not understand this practice. However, even a casual acquaintance with other religious traditions reveals that all express a similar human instinct and need by granting recognition to their holy ones. They do not call it “canonization,” or designate their holy people “saints” (although some do), but practically it is the same human instinct at work. All traditions have their holy people, their gurus, their sages and spiritual masters, to whom the faithful of those traditions are encouraged to look for edification and guidance.

These holy people would themselves be the very last to want to be praised and held up for veneration. After all, they have spent their whole lives in search of the Holy One, desirous of leading others to God, not to themselves.

But we need saints. We need heroes and heroines. What inspires us most in our own spiritual journeys is not clever ideas or theories about holiness, but holy people to whom we can look for example and encouragement. Such people — to speak now of the Catholic tradition — are walking gospels, living embodiments of the sacred tradition. They show us how the gospel can actually be lived out in daily life. Their lives also, then, become another source of gospel wisdom.

St. Gregory of Tours (538–594) was one of the first to compile a compendium of the lives of the saints, the Liber Vitae Patrum. He says that he is writing about such people so as “to build up the Church; because the life of the saints not only opens up their intentions but also excites the minds of listeners to emulate them.”

The goal of the Christian life is to become holy, to become those living stones which make up the temple wherein God dwells (Ephesians 2:20–22). The purpose of writing about the saints, or raising them up for veneration in the process of canonization, is precisely to build this living temple to God’s glory.

Gregory’s second point is that knowing the lives of the saints “excites us to emulate them.” St.Augustine said that a saint’s deeds are a more useful depiction of Christian truth than the employment of complex language in Christian teaching. He should know! As deeds speak louder than words, so the lives of saints speak more clearly and powerfully to us than theories about the moral life. Perhaps some people throughout history were really changed by a theory of goodness, those who had the time and leisure to read about it. But who can count the multitude of people whose lives have been changed by the lives of the saints, however minimal might have been their knowledge?

This is a theme in some very sophisticated writing today on the moral life. Elizabeth Wyschogrod, in her Saints and Postmodernism, writes: “A postmodern ethic must look not to some opposite of ethics, but elsewhere, to life narratives, specifically, those of the saints, defined in terms that defy the normative structure of moral theory.” In simpler terms(!) she is saying that contemporary ethical theory has become so helplessly confused and complicated (see also Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue) that the lives of the saints can serve as a living normative pattern for people’s search for guidance. (At the end of his book Macintyre says our Western world we need a new St. Benedict.)

St. Francis in Ecstasy by Caravaggio

St. Francis in Ecstasy by Caravaggio

For example, any young person can see a movie about St. Francis of Assisi or Ghandi, or read a life of St. Augustine or St. Francis Xavier, and have his or her whole life forever changed by the example of such a powerful personal witness. Even though such a modern young person many not believe in God or Christ — may not even be particularly searching for God — the truth-power of a holy and altruistic life can be life-transforming. The lives of holy people can communicate the Christian message, or the height of altruistic human virtue, in a direct, forceful and unambiguous way.

Arnold Toynbee, in his great Gifford Lectures published as An Historian’s Approach To Religion, had this to say:

A society cannot maintain its social cohesion unless a decisive majority of its members hold in common a number of guiding ideas and ideals. One of the necessary social ideals is a symbolic hero to embody, in a personal form, the recognized goal of the society’s endeavours. In the Medieval and Early Modern Western Christendom the West’s symbolic ideal figure was the inspired saint (with the chivalrous knight as a secondary alternative). In the Late Modern Age the West has transferred its spiritual allegiance from the inspired saint to the invincible technician, and this change in Western Man’s personal ideal has produced changes in his spirit, outlook, and aims.

This quote needs no commentary: We need heroes and heroines to embody our ideals. Who will they be?

Another aspect of the purpose of, and the need for, saints, is evangelization. Archbishop Nowak, secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said, in an address to people preparing to instruct causes:

The pope evangelizes with the saints and the blessed, i.e., with the Christians who have lived the faith and the Gospel in an heroic and radical way. They are the evangelical images, true Christians, and to whom we refer for the new evangelization. They are models of the Christian life in the various human conditions which we must incarnate. Their lives are lives of radical testimony to Christ. Today, they are given to us of the new evangelization and to the men and women of our age.

We all know the power of the modern media. It is frequently noted that these media, for better or for worse, will be the main instruments of truth or falsehood in the centuries ahead. If I had a few billion dollars I’d set up a film company to make great lives of the saints. I would flood the world with images of St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Maximiliam Kolbe. The combination of great lives portrayed in powerful, artistically well-done, media, would be a tremendous advancement for truth in the world.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty is a treasure which has been entrusted to our community of Madonna House in a special way. But she does not belong to us: she belongs to the whole Church. We are simply seeking the Lord’s will concerning Catherine’s life and teaching for the “building up of the Church of God.”

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