If there’s anything we could do to make our Catholic life more interesting, rich and cohesive something we badly need it would be to bring the saints back into the picture. Oh, it’s coming, I can tell.
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After a few-decade hiatus, saints are making a comeback. Every book publisher, religious and secular, has their own saints’ book of some sort lives, quotations or humor of the saints all dot the bookstore shelves.
John Paul II has encouraged interest in saints in his own way by canonizing so darn many of them.
But we’ve still got a ways to go until saints have reclaimed their proper place in Catholic life and recovered from the fears of older folk with bad memories of pre-Vatican II excesses, superstitions and syrupy hagiography are justifiably wary of any resurgence of that style of devotion.
But it seems to me that attention to the saints is absolutely necessary, not because anyone has decreed it, but because their stories fit the questions and yearning of the modern age, which is what we should be attending to, if we are really evangelizing.
You want diversity? Look at the saints. Sure, they all bring a shared faith in Jesus to the table, but they come from all different directions, places, styles and temperaments. Be you docile or brazen, intellectual or emotional, there’s a saint or two for you somewhere.
Saints also give us a way to understand the sins and problems of the Church which, quite honestly, keep many from setting a foot in the door. They’ve experienced those problems, many first hand more saints than you know have been silenced, banished and even temporarily excommunicated by church leaders. If they can keep the faith and see to the core of it, beyond the extraneous, surely we can.
But most of all, the stories of saints are a powerful antidote to the modern penchant for abstraction in religious expression. They are inarguably specific and unique, and in that specificity, they live out the answer to the question,
“How can you believe this stuff? What’s the use?”
For you see, many people find it difficult to believe in the God they can’t see and can only barely understand. There are so many things in the world calling for my allegiance, things that I can see, things with results and visible consequences, why continue to grapple with this stubborn invisibility, this yet unfulfilled promise of joy?
When I am tempted to think this way, I consider the human beings I most admire. I think of the smartest, happiest people I know of who have done the most good in the world.
Without exception, they are all saints. They are St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal and the as-yet uncanonized, from Dorothy Day to Flannery O’Connor.
It is not just that hearing their stories, I want to be like them. It is that these are people who inspire, quite simply, trust. I may not agree with every word they have written and might not make all of the choices they made, but on the whole, they are trustworthy and more worthy of emulation than any other figures in history honestly can you think of any?
I can’t. And as different as they are, they are, in the end, bound by one factor: they all knew Christ and staked their lives on Him.
And I have to tell you, sometimes when the questions and problems and theological puzzles get to me, that is just about all I have. I want to see God, I want to understand how this world makes any sense at all, with its suffering and its cruelty and its beauty, but sometimes, I just can’t. The explanations offered in words all fall short. And the alternatives, which do not ask nearly as much from me, start looking pretty good.
But then the faces and the voices appear from the shadows. Not speaking, necessarily, but just living vigorously, lovingly, worthily. The people, scattered through history, who strike at my heart as the wisest, most admirable human beings, who all, without exception, worked through their own darkness and came through, holding on fast to the truth of Christ.
If this is why they lived this way moved and nourished by the love of the God they all said they knew and believed and trusted then, I have to think it must be true. True for them, true for me, true for a struggling, groaning world.
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributor to the Living Faith quarterly devotional. This article first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reprinted here with permission of the author.