Are Saints Really Saints?

Some today might strongly object to some of those we honored recently in our calendar as saints. 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, and he was in there fighting with the rest of them. 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. 

So, are these people really saints?

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 envision 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 time and place, and so they have their limitations. We can’t understand them unless we appreciate the world they lived in. The saints in our calendar recently are examples.

Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” describes ordinary holiness in our world, beginning with“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. Amid their faults and failings 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 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)

No one, not even a saint, is perfect, the pope says. In an imperfect society there are no perfect people. We all await the mercy of God. That’s good to remember when we consider Saints Thomas More and John Fischer, Cyril of Alexandria, and Junipero Serra and so many others.

They were holy, but not perfect. They lived in an imperfect society, as we live in one today. Yet, they were seen by many as their lives ended, not as unscrupulous political figures or colonial oppressors, but as people reflecting Jesus Christ and recipients of his mercy.

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