Post 12

Sine qua non: Reflections on Describing a Saint

I remember how Pope John Paul II was praised by the secular media after his death. It seemed that his faith was treated as just one more attribute of his incredible life, as if it were just one more item, like his love of nature. I felt like the modern biographers were missing the whole point, because of course it was his faith, his intense Catholic faith, that made him who he was.

The coverage obscured the truth that Catholicism, when lived fully (especially in its requirement of Christ-like humility), is a very beautiful thing.

It happens all the time – the wrong connector word is used: Pope John Paul II was brave AND he was a Christian, but truly, it’s like this: Pope John Paul II was brave BECAUSE he was a Christian. It’s not: Mother Teresa of Calcutta loved the poor AND she was a Christian; Mother Teresa loved the poor BECAUSE she was a Christian.

Chesterton says that people notice the differences between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas but miss what is most important about them and how they are the same. He describes their many differences, but I like what he says in the first chapter of his biography on St. Thomas Aquinas:

It seems to be strangely forgotten that both these saints were in actual fact imitating a Master . . . when they sanctified the senses or the simple things of nature; when St. Francis walked humbly among the beasts or St. Thomas debated courteously among the Gentiles.   (my emphasis)

Even when it is known that someone was very loyal to their faith, this aspect is treated as an aside, as if he would be basically the same person without their faith. Now of course, as Chesterton says in that same chapter, “[e]very saint is a man before he is a saint.” Those wonderful qualities that we find in people are there even before they practice their faith (and indeed, we learn that grace builds on nature) but the genuine living-out of a person’s faith will make these qualities really come to fruition, to really develop.   About St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton writes in the same chapter: “The whole lesson of his life, especially of his early life, the whole story of his childhood and choice of a career, shows that he passionately loved the Catholic worship long before he found he had to fight for it.” Most saints leave this world without becoming well-known, but those who do become known are known because their personality bloomed in a wholesome, admirable and supernatural way under the influence of their faith.

The saints’ relationship with Christ is the sine qua non, the indispensable ingredient, in the recipe for their saintliness. Without that, you still have a person (and even a Christian), but you don’t necessarily get a saint, and you might never even know much about the person at all, because his life wouldn’t have radiated the same beauty — unfading and instructive for all types of people in every age – and so his story wouldn’t be as worthy of telling.

And speaking of being known, it’s funny to consider how well the Catholic Church remembers its saints. It’s ironic that these men and women —- many of whom voluntarily sacrificed worldly honours in order to go and live a hidden and celibate life —- wind up, after their (sometimes very short) life, famous throughout the world (the Catholic Church is catholic indeed). Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) gave up his life as an actor (which isn’t to say that all actors seek fame) in order to become a priest. I was surprised to see a mosaic of St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the wall of a public park, and it was in Italy, not in France. It was very beautiful and looked recently made, even though she died 118 years ago (at age 24 after spending her adult life in a convent). As Catholics, we choose our favorite saints from all over the world.

And Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s death occurred in the shadow of Princess Diana’s death, but the legacy of Mother Teresa will far outshine that of the princess. The years that elapse will create opportunities for people to read what Mother Teresa wrote, to watch videos of her interviews, hear stories of her life, and visit her birthplace and tomb. Over the years, churches will be built in her honour, schools will have her name, and statues, stained glass windows and mosaics will be made.

That’s even better than making the cover of Time magazine, I’d say!

[May 5, 2015]