Friday, December 18, 2015

The Saints & God's Plan for You

It's not the Cote d'Azur, but the North Dallas Tollway can be a pleasant drive at night, strolling through an unending space of lights which are not quite bright enough to illuminate the plastic city below. It was on such a stroll that a friend touched on on the heart of the saints.

"Rad Trad," he said, "I want to get your opinion on something. Your remember my friend Ned, right?

"Yes, I remember Ned."

"Well, Ned had this idea about the saints. He didn't think God had this great destiny planned for everyone or that everyone could have these mystical visions if only they were all sorts of holy. You see, the way Ned has it, the saints are supposed to stand out and the rest of us are just supposed to live really normal lives. I know it's not what they say at Tradistan and it always stuck out to me."

My friend stumbled on the saints' essence. Whether we know it or not we have all met saints in the legal sense of the word, someone who is in heaven or going to heaven. We have even met saints in the colloquial sense of the word, people who emanate holiness, be they prayerful people or outright fools for God. But few of us have ever met saints in the strongest sense of the word, those raised to the altars and whose names are impressed on the cornerstones of great basilicas. These saints are of a different breed.

One man I know, middle aged and disillusioned by the selfish resistance to adulthood on the part of his fellow baby-boomers, spoke in disabusing terms of that adage God has a plan for you: "It's a bad sales pitch from fifty years back with nothing to it. As I grow old I only find one message: embrace the Cross." We want to believe God has a special plan and destiny for each and every one of us and will not accept that our doldrums are our destiny. We should be like the saints and see the fingerprint of the Holy Spirit at every turn of our exciting lives. Or should we?

The Church is a community and the new creation after the old creation fell into sin. We belong to the Church on account of Christ, united to him and hence to each other by Baptism and Holy Eucharist. No one is anything except through the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man. In so far as we are anything we are members of His Church. Christ died for us men, not for any one individual. Everything Christ does He does for the Church and for her members, especially raising saints from time to time to underscore the way of truth.

The saints are different. They are headlights brightening the road on the motorway of this world towards the eternal destination. By their very purpose God makes saints distinct from the rest of us to call to mind our faults and their example. A saint cannot be confined to a cultural narrative or the walls of institutions; for this reason, I do not think a canonization arrantly aimed at solidifying a political line can be respected. There are no establishment saints, or at least there were not any.

Saints are disproportionately priests and religious. They led different lives than most of us, but did not necessary live away from us. Many of them did not occupy famous bishoprics. How many archbishop of Paris have been saints? St. Bruno was a subdeacon who realized he was failing in his piety and took to seclusion. Was St. Anthony of Egypt even a priest or was he just a man overcome by the need for penance? My favorite post-Apostolic saint, Philip Neri of Rome, only became a priest after seventeen years praying at San Girolamo in Rome. The pope did not ordain him to be archpriest of St. Peter's; an auxiliary bishop ordained him to serve a small following of twenty of so people—the primitive Oratory—and hear their Confessions. As Christmas approaches we will be hearing about how "Good King Wenceslas looked down on the feast of Stephen." Wenceslas was a duke who had a simple piety and a strong sense of charity towards his subjects, which is epitomized in the song. The saint used to fashion the bread and wine for Mass himself and present them at the offertory, as was the custom. The saints were different yet still accessible to us who follow and simply "embrace the Cross."

Where are these saints today? Philip Neri and several other Roman saints of repute would not even get a look from a modern bishop or religious order. If obedience is a virtue unto itself then there is no need for Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila. These men and women still exist in our midst, invisible for bishops looking to cultivate profitable pilgrimages to pay homage at the tomb of "St. John Paul the Great." Canonizations now do what they have never done: they confirm the establishment.

The saints are still among us, but we must pray that they be raised above us.


  1. Canonizations now do what they have never done: they confirm the establishment.

    THAT, my friend, is a KILLER observation

  2. Catherine, Teresa, and John of the Cross particularly strike me as saints who were against the establishment. Catherine said as much when she called the College of Cardinals a den of liars after they tried to move the papacy back to France. The latter never said you couldn’t be holy as a Carmelite of the ancient observance, but the friars realized they didn’t want to change so they tried to stop John. They faded and the reformed order flourished. Such is Christianity.

  3. I am less than certain that canonizations have never confirmed the establishment. That is a very broad claim to make, disproved by even one instance to the contrary, and despite never having made much study of the saints beyond reading through Alban Butler's, I can off the top of my head think of a couple of likely candidates, though how we could be certain either way is beyond me.

    And at any rate, my own objection to the recent canonizations is less that they confirm the establishment, and more to the particular establishment they are being used to confirm.