Occasionally, we will hear someone say, “She was a saint,” but we’re more likely to hear, “He was no saint,” or to say with a shrug, “I’m not a saint.” Our concept of saints is that they are extraordinary people who, for the most part, lived long ago and possessed special divine favors that the majority of us neither have nor comprehend.
We admire and venerate them, but their alabaster perfection is beyond us. Becoming a saint is frightening because it seems to demand the impossible. Why would God demand from us what is not attainable?
Or do we not understand what makes a person—a sinner like any of us—a saint?
Clearly, it is attainable, as evidenced by the untold number of faithful men and women who, Scripture tells us, comprise the “great cloud of witnesses” who surround and intercede for us from their heavenly realm (Heb 12:1). These holy witnesses include not simply those who are officially canonized here on earth, but all God’s faithful who have gone on to their eternal reward. Most of these did not die as martyrs, perform miracles, or lead extraordinarily pious lives. Most led relatively hidden, ordinary, sometimes troubled existences—much like our own.
Whatever the case, they were, in fact, all sinners just like the rest of us. Even some of the more well-known saints committed grievous sins. King David was a scheming adulterer and murderer. St. Paul persecuted the early Christians with ruthless abandon. The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew includes a long list of names presented as “the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah,” including more than a few nefarious characters from the Old Testament—all presented as the forerunners of the Messiah.
In other words, saints were not perfect, otherworldly beings planted here on earth to inspire (or discourage!) us by their flawless devotion. They were real people who dwelt on this earth as human beings like the rest of us—flesh-and-blood persons who knew what it was like to struggle, weep, fear, worry, stumble, and fail (sometimes seriously). What ultimately made them saints was not their perfection, but their authenticity. In the end, they were defined not by their faults and failings,
but by their willingness to humbly place themselves in the hands of our merciful God, whose grace redeemed them, and whose Spirit impelled them to accomplish great things in his name—even in the most ordinary of circumstances.
They achieved holiness through faithfulness, not by perfection.
Holiness—becoming a saint—is required of each and every one of us. Unfortunately, we tend to resist this call, as did St. Peter, who fearfully implored Jesus to depart from him (Lk 5:1-11). Perhaps, we bargain, it is sufficient simply to be a “good person” without the bother of aspiring to saintliness. Or we may think that being holy is either divinely preordained for certain individuals or entirely up to us as human beings. Neither view is correct; holiness is a cooperative venture. Grace builds on nature—and nothing is impossible with God’s help. The servants are summoned to fill the jars with water, but it is Christ who changes the water into wine (Jn 2:1-11).
For this reason, Jesus did not heed Peter’s request. Instead, he replied, “Do not be afraid.” Our assurance as baptized Christians is the same: do not be afraid to strive for holiness, to become saints, because that is what you are, what you are created to be. You have only to realize it. This call to saintliness, to holiness, is nothing other than to love as God loves. It is our fundamental vocation, inherent to our very being as children created in God’s image by God, who tells his people, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” (Lv 19:2).
This promise is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, the true vine, from whom we, as branches, draw life and fruitfulness: “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” (Jn 15:5). Becoming a saint means coming to Jesus and learning from him. In doing so, nature is gradually perfected into charity—typically without spiritual heroics. This charity is cultivated and carried out daily, sanctifying the ordinary events, duties, and relationships in whatever one’s state of life.
Holiness should—and can—be found all around us. The mother, wife, and/or businesswoman is holy precisely by being those things as a result of her love for God. Likewise, the father, husband, and/or laborer, the retiree, widow/widower, the single parent or unmarried adult, the musician, soldier, or bookkeeper all can become holy through the love of God.
Holiness is achieved by the grace of God, by living in accord with God’s will and doing what we know to be right in our everyday circumstances—regardless of how we may feel, or whether it is appreciated or even noticed.
It is making breakfast for the family, paying the bills, cleaning the house and doing the laundry, going to school or work, or lending a hand to a friend. It is conducting our affairs with genuine honesty and humility, and being thankful for all we have and are.
It involves striving (yet stumbling along the way) to observe the Ten Commandments and live the beatitudes. It means attempting to feed the hungry, visit the sick, assist the poor, comfort the sorrowful, instruct and counsel when appropriate, patiently bear wrongs, forgive those who offend us, and pray for the living and the dead.
Yes, God does seem to ask the extraordinary from some. People like Blessed Mother Teresa and Blessed Oscar Romero gave their lives—in different ways—in response to having been given much by God. Their sacrifices continue to bear much fruit throughout the world. Some today are called to be saints in a similar, courageous fashion.
Most Christians, however, are called to holiness in more ordinary circumstances. As Blessed John Henry Newman stated: “Perfection is the power or faculty of doing our duty exactly, naturally, and completely, whatever it is. It is a life of faith, hope, and charity elicited in successive acts according to the calls of the moment and to the vocation of the individual.
It does not consist in any specifically heroic deeds; it does not demand any fervor of devotion; but it implies regularity, precision, facility, and perseverance in a given sphere of duties.”
A concrete example from my experience, I believe, illustrates Newman’s point. My mother—now widowed and in her 70s—is someone who has consistently remained faithful in her life as a Christian woman, wife, and mother. She bore and helped raise three children while also working outside the home full-time (putting me through college, I might add), cared for and managed the household, and struggled to deal with an alcoholic spouse.
Through it all, she did the laundry, bought the groceries, and made sure we kids got to where we needed to be for various extracurricular activities. As tired as she must have been in the evenings, she was always willing to sacrifice her time and energy to help us with homework or projects. I don’t know how she did it—except to say, as Newman did, that hers was “a life of faith, hope, and charity elicited in successive acts according to the calls of the moment.”
Today, my mother is retired and suffers from chronic back and leg pain. Still, she goes to Mass early each morning, participates in eucharistic adoration, and regularly volunteers her time to others—at the local hospital, with a parish bereavement support group, and by transporting elderly friends and parishioners
to medical appointments, and the like. To carry forward Newman’s definition of holiness, she has not performed any “specifically heroic deeds,” or exhibited any particular “fervor of devotion”—at least in the ways we typically think of such things. She has, however, certainly fulfilled Jesus’ call: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
From a Christian perspective, that is both heroic and devout. Is she perfect? Hardly. Like anyone else, my mother has her share of faults and failings. Her shortcomings are not what come to mind when I think of her, though. Rather, it is her faithfulness through it all—and that is what makes for holiness. Since her journey is not yet complete, my mother is not a saint. But she is well on her way to becoming one, by the grace of God.
The life Newman describes, and my mother illustrates, is one that most of us can acknowledge as attainable. Whether in ways big or small, holiness is simply recognizing and reflecting God’s goodness in the world through our daily circumstances. This is what the Church means by the “universal call to holiness.”
This call is rooted in God’s creation of humanity in the divine image (Gn 1:27), although the fall subsequently disfigured it. God has spent the intervening millennia attempting to woo us back, to restore humanity’s holiness. This restoration is not humanly possible, but is made so by God’s grace—grace we must accept and be willing to live each day. It is for this purpose that God gives us the Church in Jesus Christ. With this knowledge, our faith encourages us to “put on the new self” (Eph 4:24): our authentic selves created in God’s image.
This call echoes throughout Scripture. “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says (Mt 5:48). While being made holy, or sanctified, by God’s grace occurs through Baptism (1 Cor 6:11), the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that in cooperation with that grace, we must strive for “that holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). God wishes us to share his holiness, and makes us holy through Christ—but with his aid, we have to live it.
The Second Vatican Council took up and developed this theme in “Lumen Gentium.” The Church, as the Body of Christ, is made holy by Christ himself, yet is composed of stumbling sinners such as you and me, who share in the mystery of salvation. The Spirit that God bestows upon us in Christ through Baptism configures us to his body, as St. Paul says: “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13).
In other words, there is one holiness—the perfection of charity—for all the faithful, although there are different vocational paths. “The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one,” “Lumen Gentium” states. Becoming a saint, then, is a divine gift that requires a loving response to the will of God within our individual states of life and daily circumstances. Within this love, experienced at the foot of the cross, dwells the mystery of how something so grand is possible. The people of God strive for holiness and serve as branches bearing fruit for the world by remaining connected to the vine of grace that the Church provides—Christ himself.
This is the path to sainthood. With Christ in your heart, don’t be afraid to look in the mirror—and into the eyes of those reflecting Christ. Become whom you are meant to be—a saint.