“Patrick was a saint – I ain’t.” So read the bumper sticker which a student brought me after his return from Ireland. Sure, it was funny. It still kind of is; however, the slogan raises a few questions: What is a saint? Who’s called to be a saint?
Most people in the world view saints as pale, sickly and boring people who held life in contempt and who ran away from it, seeking thoughts on sacrifice and death. They are seen as dark, ghastly figures, wrapped in religious habits, who never saw light and joy in the things of the here and now. Even among Catholics, in the household of faith, saints can sometimes be seen as objects of pity, eccentrics who spent life on their knees and who constantly sought to become God’s pets by inhuman penances and severe prayer practices. But is this a saint?
Of course not. A saint herself once cried, “Lord, save me from sour-faced saints.” And recently it was a smiling Mother Teresa who was beatified. No, the life of the saints show us the fullness of life in God. They express a wholesome life and openness to truth and living which many of us desire. Now, have we had our share of “fools for Christ”? Certainly. Some of the saints were unique figures. But they and the whole company of saints show us the joy and peace offered to all by the Cross of Jesus Christ. The saints are not ghosts and statues. They were real people, with real gifts and struggles, of every age and profession, of every vocation and social class, of every spirituality and of every culture. All ordinary people who, because of God, became inspiring human beings.
Being a saint is not running off and doing fabulous and grand things. It’s just buckling down and working with God in our normal life, within our regular duties. Working to be a saint is letting Christ take top priority and allowing his teachings to transform our lives. It means letting his teachings shape our work and family life, politics and economics, our leisure and treatment of those in need, our affections and desires. It means making the most out of every opportunity and striving for excellence in everything we do, no matter how simple or mundane.
With that understanding, who is called to be a saint? Of course, we know, we are all called to become saints. Very few of us will become canonized saints, but all of us are called to be saints in this world. It’s what Christ asks of us. It’s what he deserves. It’s what the Church needs. So, maybe we can make new bumper stickers. “Patrick’s a saint — and I’m called to become a saint.”
Jeff Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston and a former teacher at Bishop England High School.