A few years ago, I spent a week in Fatima on pilgrimage. It was beautiful to be there in such a holy place, where you could truly feel Our Lady’s presence. But there are only so many days I could visit the small shrine, so by day three I had to explore the surrounding region. I walked a couple miles along country roads to reach a little town where there was a small, simple church. I went in, and started exploring the church.
This church was rather unassuming – nothing special. Small, with white walls, it could have been anywhere in the world. As I wandered through the church, I came upon the baptismal font. The plaque hanging above the font read, “In this font was baptized Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marta.”
Something about that simple sign and nondescript church moved me more profoundly than the entire elaborate shrine of Fatima. It was amazing that in such an unexceptional place, two saints were baptized, nourished with the Eucharist, forgiven of their sins. That baptismal font had produced two saints – and, at the time, no one would ever have imagined that this obscure church in a nowhere town in a backwater region of Portugal would be the source of such grace!
We sometimes like to think the saints are somehow born special. Perhaps they had saintly parents, or came out of the womb with halos on. Popular biographies sometimes make us believe that the saints are superhuman. I recall reading a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, for example, that said that as a baby, she refused her mother’s breast milk on Wednesdays and Fridays, preferring to fast in honor of Our Lord. Really? That certainly makes it sound like we can admire the saints, but not imitate them.
But that small baptismal font in Fatima made me rethink that. Saints can really come from ordinary families, in an ordinary town? Yes! And St. Paul says the same thing. We read yesterday the opening of his letter to the Corinthians. These were ordinary folks with their flaws and problems, as we read later in the letter, but notice how St. Paul greets them – “Grace and peace to you who have been sanctified by Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” Let’s look at that.
First, “You have been sanctified.” By the Blood of Jesus, we are already holy! If we are in the state of grace, then God’s grace is already at work within us. We must not discount that. Yes, we are sinners, but we are sinners justified by His death. St. Paul almost always begins his letters by addressing the Christian community as hagion – the “holy ones”. When God lives in us through grace, we are the holy ones.
But we can always increase our capacity for grace. Consider a shot glass and a bucket. Fill both to the top with water – which one is more full? Neither – they are equally full, completely full to capacity. But which one holds more water? The bucket. We may be filled with God’s grace, but we can increase our capacity for grace. That is why St. Paul tells us that we are “called to be holy” – we are called to constantly increase our capacity for grace, to more perfectly respond to grace.
How do we do that? Prayer, the Sacraments, repenting from our sins, growing in virtue, acts of service and love. Letting God infuse every part of your life. Do you ever have those dried-up sponges on the side of the sink? You know how you put a little water on a corner of the sponge and it starts to fill the rest of the sponge with water? But we can still leave some parts of the sponge dry if we want, and not allow the water to penetrate through the whole thing. Sadly, that is how many Christians live their life – with God’s grace penetrating only part of their life (the Sunday part, the part where it’s easy and convenient to be a follower of Christ). But when you let God’s grace penetrate every part of your life, as water soaks a sponge so completely that the sponge is overflowing with water – that is when we become saints.
And that kind of holiness is for everyone, not just special people! How many saints can come out of that baptismal font here at St. John’s? How many saints can be formed here in Stamford? All it takes is to say, “God, here I am. Sanctify me. Make me like You. I give my whole life to You.” – and then it takes a lifetime to live that out, to cooperate with the grace already at work with you. But the first step is to say, “Jesus, I want it – I want to be as holy as You!”
I’ve been reading about a young girl on the path to sainthood: Venerable Anne de Guigne, who died in the early 1900s at 11 years old. Unlike many saints, she was born with a terrible temper and selfishness. She would often throw tantrums if she didn’t get her way, and would not share anything with others. But at the young age of four, she experienced a powerful grace. Her father, who was fighting in World War I, died on the front lines, and when the officer came to inform her mother of the death, Anne’s mother collapsed in tears. Anne asked how she could make it better, and the mother replied, “Your father is in heaven, but if you wish to comfort me, you must be good.”
Her life was changed at that moment. As her mother later testified, “She changed through two things: willpower and prayer.” The next years of her young life, she gave all of her energy into controlling her temper and making sacrifices, two things that did not come naturally to her! But she could only do so because she began a rich relationship with Jesus. Everything she would suffer, she offered to the Lord with joy. Every action of hers, she sought to unite it with Jesus. It wasn’t rocket-science – but it was grace at work in her. She eventually conquered herself; or rather, God won the victory in her. When she died of meningitis at the age of 11, her cause for canonization was opened.
If saints could come from a nowhere-town like Fatima, why not here in Stamford? If saints could be made of willful little girls like Anne de Guigne, why not you? His grace is ready to make you a great saint – if you are willing.