I have a confession to make. I’m not a saint. Now, that’s no surprise to those who know me. And the better they know me, the less likely they are to think me a saint! My sins are often obvious. So, why must I “confess” I’m not a saint? Because God made me to be one. He made everyone to be a saint.
A brief history of the term “saint”
In the early years of Christianity, the word “saint” was more or less synonymous with “Christian.” After all, if God made us for holiness, and died on the Cross to give us the necessary strength, everyone who follows Jesus should reach that goal. And when professing Jesus as Lord meant possible martyrdom, people had to take their faith seriously.
Even so, not everyone did. The early Church had Her share of heretics, schismatics, and sinners. So, gradually “saint” came to mean those who were living the Christian life with abandon, then those the Church infallibly declared were in Heaven.
Throughout the Middle Ages, priests and religious were expected to be holy. God had called them in a special way. But lay people had business to care for and families to raise. They followed the teachings of the Church and tried not to commit mortal sin. But few expected much more of them than this.
The saints themselves teach us the truth about sainthood
God sent saints to re-teach us that holiness is for everyone. In the 16th century, St. John of the Cross wrote that visions and private revelations were unnecessary and dangerous for people who wanted to grow close to God. In the 17th century, St. Francis de Sales called lay people to be holy in accordance with their state in life. In the 19th century, St. Therese of Lisieux taught that holiness consisted in loving and trusting God, not necessarily in doing great deeds. And in the 20th century, St. Maximum Kolbe told his confreres, “I demand you become saints–and very great saints!”
Vatican II made the doctrine of the universal call to holiness official:
Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect (Lumen Gentium 11).
No room for excuses
But still, we make excuses. We think others are called to the heights, not us. We excuse our sins by saying, “I’m no saint.” Read the words of St. Teresa of Avila:
O Lord! All our trouble comes to us from not having our eyes fixed upon Thee… We cry out at once: “Well, I’m no saint”; I used to say that myself.
God deliver us, sisters, from saying “We are not angels”, or “We are not saints”, whenever we commit some imperfection. We may not be; but what a good thing it is for us to reflect that we can be if we will only try and if God gives us His hand! Do not be afraid that He will fail to do His part if we do not fail to do ours (Way of Perfection Ch. 16, emphasis mine).
You see, Teresa of Avila was not always holy. She sinned, made mistakes, and sometimes forgot her purpose in life. Just like us.
The idea that saints are born holy lingers on. We think it was easy for saints to be good, because they had extraordinary graces. We gloss over their struggles, because we want to view them as different, special.
Ordinary, not extraordinary
Yes, some saints did have extraordinary graces. But that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t take extraordinary grace to be holy–only ordinary grace. The kind we receive at Baptism and through the other Sacraments. The kind that increases when we spend time in prayer, resist temptation, and make even small sacrifices out of love.
St. Paul wrote, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). God began the work of grace in us. He is willing and able to complete it. All He asks is our cooperation.
In cooperating with God we become saints.
So, if I ever start making excuses for my sins, please call me to task. I am not a saint–yet. But I intend to be one. And I hope you will be there ahead of me.
Share with us: How do you see yourself as different from the canonized saints? What is your favorite quote or anecdote calling ordinary people to holiness?