Heroes of faith.
by John Pietropaoli, LC | Source:
Father Scott Fitzgerald was unquestionably an immensely talented writer, but it seems he needed a dose of brutal realism from time to time. That is precisely what he got when he attempted to bemoan his humble status in the presence of Ernest Hemmingway, and nostalgically sighed “You know, the rich are so very different from the way you and I are.” Hemmingway, never one to mince words, truthfully, if a bit insensitively, replied “Yes. They have more money.”
No one denies that among the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church some stand out. We call them saints, and they are remarkable in every sense of the word. Take Peter, an uncouth fisherman from a cultural backwater who went to preach Christ’s name in the most important city of the ancient world. Or for a bit of fearless feistiness you have Catherine of Sienna, a woman known to lecture Popes as though they were wayward schoolboys. Thomas More, a celebrated wit and polymath in Tudor England who chose to die rather than betray his faith; Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian husband and father whose refusal to join the Nazi armed forces cost him his life; Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the nun “like a little machine gun” (as former papal photographer Arturo Mari once described her) who never quailed in front of unimaginable misery and degradation: this is the stuff of heroism.
And yet perhaps their very strength, courage, and perfection serve to mark them as somehow super-human, distant, aloof, inimitable. We face the constant temptation of thinking, “holiness is for the saints, not for me.” We can take F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lament recorded above and customize it to “The saints are so very different from the way I am”; and the conclusion may be that they somehow had it easier, and that any emulative effort on our part is doomed to failure.
Perhaps we, too, need a dose of healthy realism to bring us to our senses. Yes, the saints are very different from the way you and I are. They are holy. They are in heaven. They have finished their race and won the fight they fought so valiantly on earth. But the good news is that every person is called to holiness; and this is not an exercise in wishful thinking but an official teaching of the Church. In the documents of the Second Vatican Council we find the following: “Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘For your sanctification is the will of God’". We’re not there yet; but God is expecting us.
However a question mark remains. Not all of the saints had an easy time of it, and some were martyred under horrible circumstances - St Lawrence, for instance, the heroic deacon who was barbecued in ancient Rome – but isn’t it true that the majority led a placid existence far from the struggle of everyday life?
In fact I think our tendency is to take it for granted that the vast majority of saints did not have to face the same struggles and temptations that your average workaday modern must face. For example take St Therese of Lisieux, who at the age of two was already convinced that she was called to be a nun, and who later confided that a confessor assured her that in her entire life she had never committed a single mortal sin. If anyone had a painless life and an EZ Pass to sainthood, one might say, it was surely St Therese; in fact even the sweet portraits that all too often adorn her autobiography testify to that fact.
But open the pages of that same autobiography and a totally different picture emerges; a girl whose brief life was filled with intense suffering and nearly overwhelming struggles. Powerful temptations toward pride, anger, and jealousy are recounted; yet pale in comparison the great struggle that filled the last year of her life before her agonizing death from tuberculosis at the age of 24. She relates that constant and nearly unbearable temptations against her belief in the existence of heaven made her feel “as though her soul was being crushed in a vise.” On second thought, then, this is not your normal picture of an idyllic life.
Or consider the heroic saints listed above. St Peter, the first pope, denied Christ three times and deserted him when the Cross drew near. St Catherine of Sienna battled ferocious temptations against purity. St Thomas More had temptations to doubt whether he was making the right decision in dying to uphold supreme Papal authority; temptations no doubt exacerbated by friends and family members urging him to sign the statement recognizing King Henry VIII as head of the English Church. Jägerstätter had to fend off repeated attempts to convince him to violate his conscience in order to avoid execution.
And as any reader of Time magazine knows, Mother Theresa of Calcutta endured temptations against faith extraordinary both in their ferocity and in their longevity. She will soon be declared a saint not because she never faced temptation and doubt, but because, with God’s help, she faced them down.
In the end, a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying; and since every one of us already lives up to the sinner part of the equation we may as well be a sinner who ends up a saint. And the good news is that we are not alone in the struggle; as Pope John Paul II reminded us time and again, “Do not be afraid. God is with us.” God wants us to be saints. We are created for holiness. A short while ago, the staunchly Catholic actor Eduardo Verastregui was giving an interview about his movie Bella and touched upon this very point. While speaking about his future aspirations Verastegui, a self-described former playboy once labeled the “Brad Pitt of Mexico”, made a comment that should be written in the skies for everyone to read. “I was not created to be an actor. I was created to be a saint.”
So yes, the saints are different from you and me. They have more holiness. Yet this holiness came as the result of struggles endured with God’s grace and their own effort, which should be a comfort to all of us weak and very human Christians who fight temptation on a daily basis. We are called to be saints, to fight and struggle for the cause of Christ while relying on his friendship and grace. If we do this, at the end of our lives we will be able to say along with St Paul “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now I await the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the just judge, will give me on that Day; and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his Appearing.”
Brother John Pietropaoli, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in New York.