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Saints Are the Only Realists


Challenged by Holy People
A Good Hiding Place
The Work Ahead of Us

“Don’t call me a saint,” Dorothy Day once said with irritation. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” We may smile but can understand this complaint from the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who lived from 1897 to 1980.

In fact, her cause for canonization has been introduced by the Archdiocese of New York. Many people already consider her an outstanding witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Canonized saints and all holy women and men are often seen as well-intentioned but unrealistic people, as possessing heroic virtues impossible for ordinary people.

Sin is real (it happens), yet hardly realistic (it always requires that in some way we lie to ourselves about who we are before God and in relation to other people). Were Adam and Eve being realistic when they expected that eating the forbidden fruit would make them God’s equals?

Realists see all of life, not simply short-term hopes. Holiness is, in fact, eminently practical.


Challenged by Holy People

There’s something oddly comforting about placing holy people on such a high pedestal that we do not have to take them seriously.

The November 1 feast of All Saints reminds us that becoming a holy person is possible in all times, for people of both genders, of all ages, in all places and at all points along the social and occupational spectrum.

Saints (those canonized and those “in waiting”) do not become holy simply by challenging their contemporaries. They become holy by allowing God’s grace to influence more and more of their decisions. Many of their contemporaries feel challenged by that.

Who was more realistic—St. Francis of Assisi or his father, Pietro Bernardone, a prosperous cloth merchant? Was St. Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast day is November 19, less realistic than the relatives who bitterly criticized her for being too generous to poor and sick people? Were Sts. Frances Xavier Cabrini (November 13), Rose Philippine Duchesne (November 18) or the martyred Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J. (November 23) unrealistic?

Contemporaries of holy people often consider themselves much more in touch with life than these individuals. But are they?

Was Dorothy Day less realistic than John D. Rockefeller, Sr., or Henry Ford, Sr., who achieved great economic success by 1933, the year that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin began the Catholic Worker Movement?

One measure of Dorothy’s realism was her ability to see all of life as interconnected. Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990), who admired Day greatly, made a famous woodcut of Christ in a breadline. In Jesus’ parable about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), who is more realistic: the people who respond to human need with compassion or the people who fail to see Jesus in their suffering sisters and brothers?

Was Dorothy more realistic when she had an abortion or when she later repented of it? When she began living with Forster Batterham or when she left him for refusing to marry her after the birth of their daughter, Tamar? Conversion to God’s ways is always a move toward realism, not away from it.

Every sin claims to be prudent and realistic. “That’s just the way the world is,” people often say. In fact, Satan works most effectively when we consider sin as ordinary and virtue as something reserved for superheroes.

Perhaps that’s why during the Easter Vigil and sometimes during a Baptism at Sunday Mass the celebrant asks the congregation: “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?”

The term “empty promises” stings. When we give in to temptation, we move farther down a dead-end street, not along some shortcut promised by that sin.

Have we unconsciously bought into the lie that sin is more realistic than virtue? Are the people we emulate truly realistic? What people say they most admired about the late Tim Russert was his integrity. Is that dominant in the women and men whom we most admire? How much do people see that virtue in us?

Holy people are not lost on life’s side roads. As the only realists, saints invite us to embrace passionately our God-given freedom and dignity.—P.M.


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