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    Stained Glass Diamonds

    Irrelevant Saints

    When was the last time that you considered what a saint would do in your position?

    By Terence Sweeney

    October 31, 2021
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    • Mary Beth

      I DO love the lives of the Saints. My granddaughter Gianna is named for St. Gianna Molla. My daughter suffers with addiction, and was using before she realized she was pregnant. I knew St. Gerard is a patron saint of mothers and birth, but thought, “I need a woman on the case,” and found out about St. Gianna and asked for her intercession. The baby was born at 26 weeks, 1 lb, 15 oz. It was an emergency C Section and the nurse came to my daughter’s head and said, “I will be the one taking baby when she is born - if she is breathing, you’ll be able to see her, if not, I’ll be caring for her right away - do not worry, I’ll be her nurse, my name is Gianna” - I grabbed the woman’s arm - I’d never met anyone named Gianna - and told her how I’d been praying to the saint. After all that, my daughter decided to name her Gianna, and our little Gigi is currently a busy, THRIVING two year-old. (The story of St. Tarcisius is one that stirred me as a child, too. I often look in antique stores to see if I can find the particular saints book that was on our bookshelf at home when I was a child)

    • Mary Kressin

      Thank you for this great article. I remember my Lives of the Saints book. Horrifying yet beautiful. One saint was crushed with a heavy stone and I pictured that happening to me. A female saint had her breasts cut off! And then Joan and the fire. These were true super heroes.,I must get my book out and reread .

    When I made my First Communion, I received some money, a few rosaries, and copy of Picture Book of Saints. I don’t remember what I did with the money, and I lost the rosaries to my voracious dog. But the Picture Book of Saints became a well-thumbed companion. I loved the drawings with saints such as the deathly pale Patrick, Peter Claver baptizing a man painted blue, a Christopher who seemed not at all close to drowning, and the fiery Francis Xavier overshadowing a grayed-out world. My favorite was the martyr Tarcisius, whose picture looked like Julie Andrews and whom I found deeply inspiring (I still do). But “when I became a man, I set aside childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11). One childish thing I set aside was my saints’ book. It resides in my childhood bedroom, unread and unpondered.

    That is, alas, where we put saints’ lives when we become adults. The saints are irrelevant, eccentric, and imprudent. They are seemingly impossible guides for living in what W. H. Auden calls “the moderate Aristotelian city.” Francis of Assisi stripping bare in the streets, Augustine rejecting Roman wealth and power, Rose of Lima living a life of penance, Damien of Molokai living among the lepers, and Dorothy Day residing with Bowery bums and advocating for a society that won’t need soup kitchens. As the not-yet-canonized Dorothy Day put it, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” What Day put her finger on is a deep scandal in the life of the church. To be declared a saint is to be relegated to children’s books, to be petrified on a pedestal, to be treated as irrelevant to our actual lives.

    This is the opposite of what should be the case. The life of a Christian is to attempt to live in imitation of Christ, with the help of his grace. In his followers, Christ is refracted like light through a prism into a multitude of images, each saint bringing to expression some facet of Christ. This refraction offers ways of living as Christ according to our varied personalities and vocations. From the contemplative hermit to the active parent, from a far-roaming missionary to a small-town teacher, there are a multitude of ways to live out the imitation of Christ. What do we do instead of taking seriously the various examples offered by the saints? We consign them to children’s biographies and, if you’re Catholic, maybe an All Saints’ Day dress-up party.

    The irrelevance of the saints is a theological scandal. If the saints – as refractions of Christ’s image – are irrelevant, then Christ is too. We see this in the woeful lack of importance so many professed Christians place on the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t take seriously the idea that we should turn the cheek, offer our cloak, walk a mile, and love our enemy. Though we can rightly see that Christ is teaching by means of the hyperbolic (do not cut off your hand!) that does not justify metaphorizing the life out of his teaching. There is a charter for the life of Christians and that is the Gospels, from the Sermon on the Mount to the care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). As we read in Following the Call the Sermon on the Mount calls us to “wholehearted, total, single devotion to the rulership of God.”

    The Sermon on the Mount is the map for the path to sainthood for each of us. Such a call is beyond any of the world’s accounts of prudence. This is not to say we don’t need prudence in this life; prudence should not mean determining if we will live the Sermon on the Mount but rather how we will live it. How we will love our enemies, feed the poor, and instruct the ignorant requires discernment, but that we must do these things does not.

    The saints are supposed to be our exemplars, essential models for living out the Sermon on the Mount and relating our life to Christ. But really, who notices? When was the last time that you seriously considered what a saint would do in your position? When was the last time a congregation – pastor or congregants – thought out its mission plan according to the measure of the saints? Do people outside of church think of Christians as in any way aspirational? Do we inspire people to say, “See how they love one another?” As Christians, have we let our Picture Book of Saints accrue dust as we live our adult lives? Our churches are too often stuck and stagnant; we pay for new programming, hire consultants, and act like businesses, yet still people flee the church. We need to take the lives of the saints off the shelves, put a permanent bookmark in the Sermon of the Mount, and start acting like salt, light, and leaven for the world.

    To be declared a saint is to be relegated to children’s books, to be petrified on a pedestal, to be treated as irrelevant to our actual lives.

    Despite the neglect of these saints there seems to be a growing sense in modern Christianity that sanctity is a universal vocation. The Second Vatican Council challenged Catholics, Christians, and all people of good will to realize that “everyone … is called to holiness.” We have too often watered that holiness down. I have heard countless homilies exhorting me to live the Christian witness by being a good husband, father, worker, and citizen; I should be all those things and if I am, then sainthood is not far off. However, our response to such an admonition should be, “Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt. 5:47). Clearly, we should be holy in the ordinary. But Christ makes clear (as do the lives of the saints) that this is not enough. So find ways to go above and beyond. Live the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy beyond your household and workplace. Pray more, fast more, serve more, give more. Find ministries that fit your talents and invest those talents with abandon. Be outlandish and give your life over to sanctity.

    Leon Bloy wrote that “the only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” So fetch your Picture Book of Saints. Have a look at it again, pick a saint, and imitate him or her. Read the Sermon on the Mount. Figure out the ways in which you can love more, and more broadly. The goal of our life should be more than just being a decent person. We should be Christ for others, saints of the modern world – men and women worthy of a place in a future picture book of saints!

    Contributed By TerenceSweeney Terence Sweeney

    Terence Sweeney has a doctorate in philosophy from Villanova University, where he is an adjunct professor

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