I’m not a Catholic that grew up with the saints. No altars to Mary, no rhyming prayers to St. Anthony whenever I searched for a lost sock, no St. Joseph figurine buried in our front yard. Actually, it was not until I grew older and peers started asking, “What’s up with Catholics and all their saints?” that I even realized these popular Catholic devotions were absent from my upbringing. These holy folks just weren’t a part of the piety of my family or parish.
So many of my friends thought the Catholic saint thing was super weird–and I really couldn’t disagree with them. It was a humble desire to attempt to the tradition of my upbringing that motivated my initial interest in the Catholic devotion. Surprisingly, though, the more I read hagiographies (or, stories about saints) the more I came to appreciate many aspects of this often-perplexing part of Catholicism.
There are lots of things I don’t understand about Catholic saints, and even some things I find questionable, but I want to share with you what I have found helpful, even beautiful.
First, a basic understanding of saints that I find helpful: Simply put, saints are people officially recognized by the Church as exemplifying incredible, holy lives. (Parameters for what delineates these incredible, holy lives have changed, and continue to change, overtime). We ask them to pray for us in the same way that we might ask a very admirable friend or mentor to do the same. On that note, I think it is really powerful to think of them as companions in faith in that they are people like you and I who intentionally sought/seek to live life in light of the Christian faith. In this sense, I like to think of them as really amazing community mates.
The idea of saints is most compelling to me when I think about the importance of relationships in my life, particularly in my faith formation. My faith is largely indebted to the Christians I have encountered. Time and time again, I recognized exemplary lifestyles in them which continually fed a desire to live a more Christian life myself. Additionally, these were often the same people who brought out the best in me. Their companionship inspired me to choose the best for myself. Their grace, wisdom, and kindness helped me recover from the times when I failed myself and others. Even today, when I am disheartened in my faith the goodness and virtue I witness in the lives of so many Christian women and men remind me why I have invested–and keep investing–so much of myself into the Catholic tradition.
Once I realized the significance of the saints that surround me every day–the family members, friends, mentors, and church leaders–the idea of considering the official Catholic saints didn’t seem so strange. The people who accompany me through books and stories might have a lot of potential to aid me in my faith too–and they have.
Recently, I picked up a great book called “All Saints” by Robert Ellsberg. The book is broken up in daily readings ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages. Each daily reading concerns the life and significance of a single saint OR saintly person. What I love about the book is that Ellsberg includes really interesting accounts of popular and lesser known official Catholic saints ranging from John the Baptist to St. Ignatius and beyond; yet he also includes non-canonized (or, not officially recognized) saints. They are Catholics, Protestants, and “non-Christians” who exemplified the best in Christian living through their saintly lives. Individuals like Gandhi, Moses, Dorothy Day, Jewish theologian Martin Buber, Galileo, and Native American Chief Seattle are just a few of the admirable individuals included in the book.
As I reflect on a different “saint” each day, I appreciate more and more the saints who surround me, in the past and the present, continuously accompanying me in this grand, and often difficult, Christian journey.