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 | By Sister Pam Smith

Growing in Holiness, Quarter by Quarter

As we ease, or careen, into a new year, I’ve found myself considering spiritual growth through the lens of football. The fact that I’m even using a football metaphor can be attributed to the sisters I live with who so admire the golden domes on the heads of Notre Dame’s players and have acquainted me with in-home Superbowl rituals. It strikes me that there can be profit from looking at a lifespan in terms of first and second quarters, halftime, and third and fourth quarters and the developmental tasks that allow people of faith to become saints — at any and every chronological age.



Thanks to educational theorists, we’re quite familiar with what happens, or ought to happen, from ages 1 day to 25 years — the first quarter — when we form a sense of being in the world. We relate to family, make friends, master some basic life skills, gather information and insights, make choices and distinctions about our likes and dislikes, nurture ambitions, embark on careers, deepen relationships and make some initial commitments. If we’re fortunate, we become acquainted not only with a faith tradition but also acquire a sense of the reality of God and the allure of living a life attuned to God’s will.

If we’re raised Catholic, we receive the sacraments of initiation and reconciliation and perhaps, toward the end of the quarter, may be married or ordained or have professed vows of consecrated life. Ordinarily, none of this happens without some kicking and screaming on our part, whether we’re in the “terrible twos” or the “tricky 22” phase. What is clear is that as we grow up, we form consciences and can respond to God’s grace. The fact that we can become saints, even in the first quarter, is clear when we look at the lives of people like Sts. Kateri Tekakwitha, Dominic Savio, Thérèse of Lisieux (the Little Flower), Maria Goretti and Blesseds Pier Giorgio Frassati and Carlo Acutis.


From ages 26-50, our second quarter, a great deal happens. We solidify commitments, take on mature responsibilities, find ourselves called into new ventures, advance our careers and vocations, settle into certain habits and patterns, learn from our surroundings and colleagues, move from home and in many cases, birth and raise the ones Alison Blanchet (our Team Catholic columnist) always refers to as “the kiddos.”

If we haven’t already done so in the first quarter, we face and live through trials and tragedies while also coming to a deeper sense of God, morality and concern for the world. We develop a more refined spirit of sacrifice. If we are even vaguely like Sts. Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Zelie Martin (the Little Flower’s mother), Andrew Dung-Lac, Gianna Molla or Ven. Augustus Tolton — who all concluded their earthly tasks before age 50 — we find ourselves lastingly in love with, and would even lay down our lives for, God and the greater good.


Unlike football, we may find that halftime pops up at any point during the second quarter. There may be a jolt that causes us to change direction or reassess priorities. We learn that each day we are more drawn to, and reliant on, what spiritual writers call moments of deep recollection. If halftime turns out to be some sort of mid-life crisis, it can end up being a self-correction or recalculation that hopefully leads to a much happier and holier life.


The third quarter, ages 51-75, is the stage which psychological theorists say ought to be about generativity. Younger people are begetting even younger people, and we begin to be seen as the elders and guides. Some of our long-term projects come to fruition even as we take on new ones. We adapt to change and discover strategies for doing more while somehow doing less. We begin to delegate responsibilities and think in terms of legacy while attending to present needs. Our perspectives shift as we consider fascinating prospects and some distinct limits.

We come to terms in new ways with our personal strengths and weaknesses, and we mourn more deaths of persons we’ve known and loved. A bit of nostalgia creeps in amid our efforts to tap our experience to foster noble new opportunities. Think of the productivity and influence of those whose earthly mission ended in this quarter — Sts. Bonaventure, Frances Xavier Cabrini, John Bosco, Sharbel Makhlouf and Servant of God Thea Bowman. All of them grew and changed even as they aged, balancing their sense of the complexity of God’s cosmos with their own dreams.


If current trends continue, some of us will live well into a fourth quarter, ages 76-100, and even possibly into overtime. Many in this bracket serve our parishes and civic communities as volunteers, champions of pro-life ventures and service activities, all while sharing their faith and personal resources widely and devoting themselves to prayer. These are often termed the wisdom years. This wisdom requires a bit of rearranging and repacing. For some, it’s the time to get more serious about bucket-list items. For others, it’s about downsizing, right-sizing, reshuffling and succession planning. For others still, it’s the time to learn and live redemptive suffering in loss or illness.

For all faithful, the fourth quarter is the opportunity to search even more deeply about time itself, God’s time and what best might be done with the time that remains. It’s about coping, adapting, handing things on to the next generations while being open to what’s new and blessed.

We don’t have to look far to see vibrant octogenarians and nonagenarians as models, whether they are our living popes, painters, cellists, actors or servers at soup kitchens. I think of the 88-year-old sister who continues to run a pre-school and kindergarten in Pennsylvania and has, through this past summer in a special program, taught children to sing, dance, act and bring joy to audiences while she designs and sews their costumes and helps build props. She has a passion for life and a joy that comes from a lifetime of service and prayer.

Of course, we have our exemplar saints: those who have built on many years of fidelity, kept on tirelessly and fulfilled their mission well into advanced age: Sts. Louis Martin (father of the Little Flower), Pio of Pietrelcina, Teresa of Kolkata, John Paul II, Ven. Pierre Toussaint and Servant of God Dorothy Day.

Growth in wisdom, age and grace is a lifetime project for all of us missionary disciples. Our saints show us that the love of God and the energy afforded us by our receptivity to grace is boundless — whether our lives are short or long. We just need a bit of resolution, quarter by quarter.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at