Saints, according to the The Second Vatican Council, are examples of the “whole mystery of Christ” and God’s power on earth. Their feasts “proclaim and renew the paschal mystery of Christ.” (Paul VI) They’re examples of faith in their time, and they help us have a vision of faith for our time. They offer a panoramic view of the journey of the church over the centuries.
Saints assure us that “holiness is not bound by time and place,” still, they’re men and women of their own time and place. We can’t understand them unless we appreciate the world they lived in. Some saints in our calendar this week and next are examples.
John Fischer and Thomas More (June 22) lived in the fierce world of the Reformation and English power politics. Cyril of Alexandria (June 27) was bishop of Alexandria in Egypt when that city was being fought over by rival factions. Junipero Serra (July 1) was part of the Spanish colonization of the New World. His statue was recently toppled in San Francisco as a subjugator of the native peoples.
Some today strongly object to these men honored as saints. So are saints really saints?
Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” speaks of ordinary holiness in our world–“the saints next door”: “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) They persevere.
Canonized saints have faults and failings too, the pope says. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)
Later in his letter, Francis cautions about the dangers of modern day Pelagianism: “When some say “ all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. (49)
A saint isn’t perfect, the pope says. In an imperfect society there is no perfect saint. That’s good to remember when we consider Saints Thomas More and John Fischer, St.Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Junipero Serra.
They were not perfect, and they lived in an imperfect society, as we live in today. Yet, they were seen by many as their lives ended, not as unscrupulous political figures or colonial oppressors, but as men reflecting Jesus Christ.