By Stewart Clem
Every society has its heroes. The ancient Greeks looked to Achilles. The Civil Rights movement looked to Martin Luther King Jr. American popular culture looks to mononymous celebrities like Bono and Oprah.
The Church is no different. Our heroes are the saints — from the well-known, like St. Mary the Virgin or St. Francis, to the more obscure, like St. Sebastian or St. Lucy. These heroes of the faith come from different time periods and walks of life. Some of our saints are found in the Bible (all the apostles are considered saints, for example), but many more are found throughout the centuries: monks, friars, nuns, scholars, deacons, priests, bishops, and ordinary people who did extraordinary things for the God they loved.
Saints hold an ambivalent place, however, in the hearts and minds of contemporary Christians. We’re not so sure that we should have a category of sainthood, because we’re not so sure that Christianity is the kind of thing that should have superheroes. After all, aren’t we all equal before God? And isn’t it true that Christianity is not a performance?
We might be more inclined to say that all Christians are saints and only by God’s grace. Isn’t that what we should be focusing on? This kind of thinking has roots in the Protestant Reformation, but perhaps even more so it’s a reflection of the egalitarian culture in which we live. Contemporary society is increasingly trending toward informality and solidarity. We’ve dispensed with formal titles and certain forms of speech that reflect outmoded Victorian sensibilities. We can’t help it. And if you’re an American (like me), it’s in our blood. Even if we don’t always live by our principles, we’re committed to the idea that everyone should be equal.
Yet the Church holds onto this idea of saints. And not just saints, but Saints. These are the heroes of the faith. We’re reminded of this fact especially on days like today, when we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.
For centuries, the Church in the West has set aside November 1 as a day to recognize and honor all of those recognized as saints for their devotion to our Lord. This has been a part of the Anglican tradition from the beginning.
Many churches also take the opportunity to remember all of our loved ones who have gone on to be with the Lord, and this is good and fitting. But the Church has set aside November 2 as an optional commemoration for All the Faithful Departed for this purpose. The distinction between these two feast days is often blurred, for practical reasons. But the fact remains that our loved ones have a special place in our church’s calendar, reserved just for them.
We should not neglect Saints. We need them if we want to learn what it means to be a Christian. We need flesh-and-blood examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this strange world we live in. Sometimes we need others to remind us of the demanding — and even counterintuitive — nature of Jesus’ teachings. Thanks to the Saints, we have 2,000 years of lived commentary on Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39)
We have the example of St. Francis, who truly became poor for Christ’s sake, as he committed himself to a life of total poverty. We may not be called to such a radical task, but Francis’s example is a powerful reminder of the attitude we should have toward our material possessions ¾they are not our own, and we are simply stewards of whatever God has given us.
Or we have the example of St. Augustine, who was a proud, ambitious, and lustful young man, until he had a radical encounter with Jesus Christ. His life is a witness that even our most disordered desires can be transformed by grace into a passionate love for God.
We have the example of St. Catherine of Siena, who spoke truth to power while exemplifying humility. She was instrumental in returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome, and her faithfulness and boldness gave her a hearing in the papal court. Her dedication to the Eucharist can teach us the meaning of Jesus’ words, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
This is why we need the Saints. When we ignore them, we close ourselves off to a vast treasury of resources that can help us to interpret and take to heart Jesus’ words about what it means to follow him. This is the most valuable lesson that the Saints can teach us — not just by their examples of doing good deeds. There is much more to being a saint that just doing good. The lives of the saints are living answers to this question: How should we respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship?
I have often wondered if the slogan WWSD? (What would a Saint do?) is more helpful than the popular WWJD? (What would Jesus do?). I’m not suggesting that the saints are better examples of how to live than Jesus. What I mean is that it’s helpful to remember that the saints are people just like us. They had the same flaws and unhelpful tendencies that we have. It’s sometimes hard to know how to answer the question What would Jesus do? since, after all, Jesus was the incarnate second person of the Trinity. It’s a bit easier to imagine what a Saint might do, because we have so many examples of what they did do, and they always remind us that God’s grace is powerful enough for us to follow Jesus’ difficult commands.
The Saints remind us that to be a disciple of Jesus is to struggle. We’re in a competition against ourselves, against our worst inclinations, and against many of the lies that society tells us about what success looks like or about what our priorities should be. Or, in more traditional Christian language: our struggle is against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, describes the journey this way: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13b). He adds, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17).
In other words, look at the Saints. Know that this is what you are called to. This is what it means to follow Jesus. And, ultimately, their examples should give us hope. When we look at the lives of the Saints, we are able say, in the words of the children’s hymn, “and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too” (Hymn 293, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” The Hymnal 1982).