Many people, including Catholics, have misconceptions about the saints. Consider the following incidents:
A journalist interviews the producer of a musical play about the life of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, who, having been in trouble with the law, escaped his native Philippines to Japan where he is eventually martyred for his faith. The producer explains that although historical records are not clear on whether St. Lorenzo Ruiz committed murder he was accused of, the play takes the position that he did. The journalist asks, “But how is that possible? He is a saint!”
During a conversation over lunch about sundry topics, someone casually asks, “How many saints are there?” Another replies, “Millions,” and is not believed.
The invited guest speaker at a talk organized by the PTA of a Catholic school exhorts the parents in the audience to encourage their children to read about the lives of the saints so as to have positive role models. The audience laughs.
Indeed, many think 1) that the only saints are those who are canonized, and 2) that those who do get canonized are otherworldly freaks. But the reality is different.
According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the term “communion of saints” refers to
“the communion between holy persons (sancti); that is, between those who by grace are united to the dead and risen Christ. Some are pilgrims on the earth; others, having passed from this life, are undergoing purification and are helped also by our prayers. Others already enjoy the glory of God and intercede for us. All of these together form in Christ one family, the Church, to the praise and glory of the Trinity.”
In other words, the term “saints” encompasses the church triumphant (all the souls in heaven), the church suffering (the souls in purgatory), and the church militant (those of us who are still on earth, aiming at sanctity). The saints whose statues are displayed in church are saints, but so are everyone’s deceased relatives and friends who have gone to heaven or purgatory.
Corollary to this is that canonization is not what makes a person a saint. It is merely a public recognition that someone is already a saint. While the Church canonizes hundreds of saints, there are millions more of saints who, though unrecognized, are nevertheless just as eligible for canonization – including people you and I have lived or worked with.
Indeed, the saints are human beings like you and me. While they were on earth, they had the same joys, sorrows, weaknesses, and problems that you and I have. They may even have committed great sins during their lifetime, repented, sinned again, and repented again. Amidst all of these, they sought the will of God and struggled heroically to fulfill it – and have gone ahead of us to show us that yes, with the grace of God, we can do it too.
This is the point of the feast with which we have begun this month – to honor all the saints, canonized or not, and to prod us to strive for sanctity ourselves. We are reminded that God wants us to be saints, and the pursuit of sanctity – even in this age of iPods and Facebook – is possible for everyone.
The universal call to sanctity is challenging. At the same time, it is a message of hope. As St. Josemaria Escriva put it,
“The saints were not abnormal beings: cases to be studied by a ‘modernistic’ doctor. They were — they are — normal: of flesh, like yours. And they won.”