Saints: Our Guides to God

Posted by Pat McCloskey, OFM on 1/4/17 7:00 AM

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A loving God offers us friendship, and the result of that gracious act is our holiness. God alone is holy: to be God is to be holy. Not to be God is not to be holy. It is not right or natural for us to live the life of God. But God creates God’s own life in us and makes it right for God to love us. When God finds divine life and love in us, it becomes natural for us to live supernatural or divine lives.

This was God’s eternal plan: “[God] chose us in [Christ], before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him” (Ephesians 1:4). “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

With faith, all this is obvious. Without faith, it contradicts obvious human experience. A prime heresy of all ages has been the one that says holiness is what we create by our own efforts.

It seems so evident that it is my strength of character that refuses to take revenge; my hard-won decision to remain faithful that sustains my marriage; my endurance that brings me to Mass every Sunday; my devotion that prompts me to fast twice a week and give tithes on all I possess. Why shouldn’t I thank God that I’m not like the rest of the world—at least many people?

Faith is the answer.


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Faith is not a naïve abandonment of reason to certain mysterious truths, or a feverish scrambling to put together a respectable life of good works. Faith is the gift whereby we are able to receive a gift. We are able to open ourselves to God’s friendship, communion, oneness. Our freedom becomes total freedom when we let Christ enfold it in his own.

It is true that we must work at being holy—keeping the commandments, being on the alert for others’ needs, disciplining ourselves. But even this effort is God’s gift. The more we realize that, the more we will use the gift.

We have absolutely nothing to give God—except himself. One Eucharistic Prayer for weekdays says, “our thanksgiving is itself your gift.”

The supreme example of human holiness is that which Jesus received— as truly human—from his Father. His heart was totally open to the gift of his Father’s love, and by his death and resurrection he is the living source whereby the Holy Spirit flows into us and through us.

The saints and blesseds whose lives are described in the book Saint of the Day are special signs of God’s activity. Their surrender to God’s love was so generous an approach to the total surrender of Jesus that the Church recognizes them as heroes and heroines worthy to be held up for our inspiration. They remind us that the Church is holy, can never stop being holy, and is called to show the holiness of God by living the life of Christ.

Our holiness is the same as theirs—God’s holiness. Their lives were indeed conditioned by the culture and history of their own day; their expression of holiness is partly different from what it would be in the twenty-first century. But the essence is the same: They received God’s gift with joy. They call to us to do likewise: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). 

Saints and Blesseds

The process starts on the diocesan level, where witnesses testify to the heroic virtue of the person. When that work is officially received by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, the person is then known as “Servant of God.” After further investigation, including the study of that person’s writings, a decree of heroic virtue may be issued, recognizing that person as “Venerable.” Designation of the person as a martyr killed “in hatred of the faith” or the acceptance of a miraculous healing clears the way for the person’s beatification. Acceptance of a second miracle leads to canonization.

The difference between canonized saints and those officially recognized as blessed is not whether they are in heaven or merely close to it. The key difference is where their liturgical feast may be publicly celebrated. A saint’s feast can be celebrated anywhere in the world; a blessed’s feast can be celebrated in the country where he or she lived and in other places where the bishops’ conference requests this and receives approval from the Holy See. If the beatified person belonged to a religious congregation, then other members of that congregation can celebrate that feast anywhere in the world. Thus, officially speaking, the feast of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata (September 5) can be celebrated liturgically only in Albania (where she was born), in India (where she lived most of her life), and in the three religious congregations she founded.


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For centuries, local bishops officially recognized saints. Because this was so important a declaration, the Catholic Church eventually reserved the canonization process—likewise the designation of someone as “blessed”—to the bishop of Rome.

One of Pope Benedict XVI’s first decisions was that normally beatifications would be celebrated in the diocese where that person lived and that the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints would preside. Otherwise, a cardinal or the local bishop presides. Beatification is still a pontifical act, following the same procedures as before. Pope Benedict XVI decided that he would preside at canonizations. This new procedure was confirmed in a communiqué from the congregation on September 29, 2005. Even so, Pope Benedict XVI beatified John Henry Newman (October 9) in 2010 and Pope John Paul II (October 22) the following year. 

Legends and Facts

There are two kinds of biography for saints. First, there is practical hagiography (from hagios—“holy”—and graphein—“to write”). From the earliest times, lists of martyrs were drawn up so that their anniversaries could be remembered. Narratives of martyrdom were also written by their contemporaries. Finally, later writers wrote accounts to edify or to satisfy curiosity. Collections were made, finally developing into what were called legendaries.

Scientific hagiography began in the seventeenth century. A Jesuit, Rosweyde, first conceived the project of a collection of the lives of the saints. The project was actually carried out by J. Bollandus and others (hence the name “Bollandists”). As much as the state of historical science then permitted, the material of the lives of the saints was subjected to severe critical analysis. Later, with the development of archaeology, philology, and paleography, greater advances were made in determining the factual content of saints’ biographies.

In this book we clearly label legend as such. We have included the legendary material because it is part of the tradition (small t) of the Church. Ages previous to ours were not blessed (or afflicted) with our passion for historical accuracy. Whether this saint actually walked on the water or not, whether the sacred Host flew from the hands of the priest to the saint’s heart or not was of no real concern. God had worked infinitely greater miracles of grace in the lives of these heroes and heroines of Christ. If what we call legend is not factually true, it is often true to the character and spirit of the saint involved. Legends always convey a truth deeper than what a video camera can capture.

We have kept and identified some of these legends, therefore, as the quaint and human poetry of countless ordinary Christians whose imaginations knew no bounds when divine friendship with God’s holy ones was involved.


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