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Why We Need Great Saints

October 31, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

Image result for catholic saintsBy JAMES MONTI

It is in late autumn, as the days grow shorter and colder and the liturgical year draws near to its close, and the month of remembering the faithful departed begins, that Holy Mother Church bids us to raise our eyes from the surrounding darkness to behold the blazing light of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the saints.
The Solemnity of All Saints’ Day on November 1 opens Heaven, as it were, to give us an inviting glimpse of the everlasting joy of those who while on Earth heard the Word of God and kept it with a generous heart.
The churches of the Baroque Era from the 1600s and 1700s express this particularly well, with their spectacular ceiling frescoes and paintings cast in the form of a vast window between Heaven and Earth. In Austria’s Cistercian abbey church of Wilhering, the saints of its principal ceiling fresco are depicted by the eighteenth-century artist Bartolomeo Altomonte (1694-1783) as rejoicing over the arrival of the Blessed Virgin Mary upon her assumption into Heaven.
In artistic representations such as that of Wilhering Abbey the “saints” depicted are not simply some of the “ordinary” citizens of Heaven, not simply some of the vast company of faithful souls who while on Earth lived or at least died in a state of grace. The men and women shown are those whom the Church over the centuries has officially recognized and venerated as “Saints” with a capital “S,” those whose holiness rose to the level of heroism in the line of duty.
While it is true that every soul now in Heaven can be considered a “saint” and is included in the Church’s celebration of All Saints’ Day, it is nonetheless vital that we recognize and venerate in an altogether unique manner those whose love and thirst for God and whose compassion for suffering mankind reached epic proportions.
The human spirit thrives upon inspiration from what is not “ordinary,” from what is not “usual.” The heart needs masterpieces to make it soar. In fact, this innate yearning and admiration for that which far excels the ordinary, for that which transcends what is common, is an offshoot and reflection of man’s deepest longing — his longing for Him who infinitely transcends and surpasses him — his longing for God.
As Dietrich von Hildebrand has put it, “Man in his nature has been endowed with the capacity to transcend himself. Thus, being ordered to God is the precise and typical expression of man’s transcendence. . . . It points to the capacity for self-donation, for a value response that is completely engendered by the infinite goodness and sanctity of God” (Christian Ethics, New York, David McKay Co., 1953, p. 222).
Mediocrity cannot inspire. This, it can be said, is part of the lesson to be gleaned from the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). The servant who buried his one talent in the ground, keeping it safe for his master but being unwilling to do more, chooses the way of mediocrity, of being stingy with God, of giving God no more than is strictly necessary. By contrast, the other two servants decide to go beyond themselves, beyond what is strictly required, and risk all by investing their master’s talents. It is they who are presented to us by Christ as exemplars of what He expects from us.
In the eyes of some Catholics of the present age, the great saints are “problematic” precisely because they went so far beyond the ordinary, that they did such things as spend entire nights praying and engaged in extraordinary acts of self-denial. Such critics frown upon these saints as impossible and even harmful role models for “modern Catholics.” For those who have essentially lost any real faith in the supernatural, those for whom Christianity has become little more than a vehicle for social activism, the sacrifices that the saints made and the fact that many of them devoted their lives largely to prayer appear as nothing short of madness.
One of the reasons why homiletics became an appalling disaster in the late 1960s and 1970s was the expulsion of anecdotes about the saints from Sunday sermons. Homilists replaced these anecdotes with insipid stories from non-Catholic sources, television shows, musicals, or their own lives. In view of this “exiling” of the saints, combined with a deafening silence about the teachings of the Church, as well as the homiletic promulgation of “new biblical scholarship” interpretations of the Scriptures that denied the inerrancy of almost everything important in the Bible, it is little wonder that a whole generation of Catholics largely vanished from the pews.
It all comes back to the “Judas question,” the secularistic objection that Judas Iscariot raised when Mary the sister of Lazarus (identified as none other than St. Mary Magdalene according to an ancient and venerable tradition) “squandered” an entire pound of costly aromatic nard upon the anointing of Christ’s feet (John 12:3-8). Yes, the great saints were “guilty” of a similar extravagance, “squandering” their lives in extraordinary sacrifices for the love of God — “Of worldly substances, friends, liberty, life, and all, to set the loss at right naught, for the winning of Christ,” as St. Thomas More (+1535) put it (“A Godly Meditation,” in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by Him in the Englysh Tonge, ed. William Rastell, London, 1557, p. 1417). Yet extravagance is the stuff of which true love is made.
Our Lord Himself has invited mankind to such extravagance. There is something wonderfully “volatile” about His great commandment of love: “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). There is fire in these sacred words. It is the fire of which Christ speaks elsewhere: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). The great saints responded to this invitation with ardor, an ardor that is contagious.
When a soldier, a police officer, or a firefighter makes the ultimate sacrifice for others, when he lays down his life in the line of duty, we can’t help but admire his courage. Does our natural reluctance to face the same life-and-death decision he had to face diminish the fact that we long to have at least some of his courage? Is this not all the more so with the saints and martyrs? Do we not stand to benefit from being “challenged” by their exceptional courage, by their extravagance in the service of God?
Why should anyone take the attitude that the sight of heroic sanctity and the living of the Gospel to the full would discourage us and make us want to give up the quest for holiness? Does a sports amateur get discouraged from watching a professional athlete? Does he not rather feel inspired to strive harder for whatever excellence he can attain in his own right? The same holds true for the spiritual life. The saints are a compelling and fascinating testament that we can do better in the service of God, and that it is a very beautiful goal to strive for, to yearn for.
There are those who say the Church should lower the bar for canonization, that she should downsize her definition of what constitutes “heroic sanctity” in order to get more “ordinary people” canonized, the sort of canonization candidates that “ordinary people” can feel comfortable imitating. This, I believe, is a serious mistake. The last thing we need in an age as dark as our own is to water down what it means to be holy. We live in a time that calls for heroes — heroic bishops, heroic priests and religious, and heroic lay people.
If you check the current ranks of those who have already made the grade for heroic sanctity as saints and blesseds of the Church, you will find very many ordinary people — married people, farmers, doctors, housemaids, and more. The “Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) attests that heroic sanctity is not nearly as unapproachable as we may fear it to be.
For several years now, I have been researching the life of one such ordinary soul, Venerable Edel Quinn (1907-1944), a young Irish woman who took a commuter train daily to and from her place of work in Dublin as the managerial secretary of a construction supply company; she had a rich and intense spiritual life of love for the Mass and the Blessed Virgin comparable to many a great saint of the Middle Ages.
We need examples like Edel to inspire us to aim high, to go beyond what is ordinary or easy, to be set on fire with zeal for the Kingdom of God. It is this same fire that in ages past spread from the hearts of the saints to set into motion the construction of soaring cathedrals and burst forth as a love song of Holy Mother Church in her lavish patrimony of sacred music.

The Beauty Of The Saints

The great saints are, moreover, a particularly beautiful reflection of the infinite goodness of God. What Dietrich von Hildebrand has said of beauty in general is especially so with regard to the beauty of the saints: “At the sight of the truly beautiful we are freed from the tension that urges us on toward some immediate practical goal. We become contemplative. . . . We expand, and even our soul itself becomes more beautiful when beauty comes to meet us, takes hold of us, and fires us with enthusiasm” (Aesthetics: Volume I, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2016, p. 6).
In his spiritual notes, the Franciscan martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) recorded his reaction to the biography of the Italian virgin St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) that he had first read as a young friar. Her passionate love for Christ in the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist and the Passion so deeply moved him that he summed up her life in these words: “To love without limits” (“Spiritual Exercises of the Year 1940,” in The Writings of Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, edited by Antonella Di Piazza, FKMI, Lugano, Italy, Nerbini International, 2016, volume 2, n. 986, p. 1600).
Could there be any better definition of what heroic sanctity is? May the great saints that Holy Mother Church sets before our eyes challenge us all “to love without limits.”

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