Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Holy and Human
"I'll never be a saint!" a woman
insisted as she talked with her parish priest and listed her problems:
her teenage children, her in-laws, one neighbor in particular. She
moaned about often getting frustrated, angry, impatient. And it
was such a struggle to fit in even a little time for prayer. "No,"
she repeated, "I'll never be a saint!"
At the funeral in England for Princess
Diana, Diana's brother cautioned against making her into a saint.
Addressing his dead sister, he announced: "Indeed, to sanctify your
memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being, your
wonderfully mischievous sense of humor with the laugh that bent
you double, your joy for life transmitted wherever you took your
Both these examples suggest a mistaken
view of the saints. Is it true that saints never get frustrated,
never feel impatience or anger? Is it true that they have no sense
of humor or joy for life, never break into a great smile? The answer
is, "Of course, it's not true!"
The point of this Update is to
show that the saints were fully human. They struggled with temptation;
they savored life's joys. In these pages, we will try to better
appreciate not only their love of God but also their great humanity.
As Catholics, we find the saints appealing. Yet, the road to holiness
is, as the opening examples suggest, a bit more complex.
Let's pause for a moment and think of
some great saints. Think of your patron saint, your favorite saint.
You don't have to raise your hands, but I would predict that the
first examples to come to mind would share either or both of these
characteristics: (1) they lived a long, long time ago, and/or (2)
they were marked by something extraordinary (gifts of prayer, mystical
experiences, discernment, healing powers and the like). What is
On the one hand, we are attracted to
the saints and to their humanity. On the other, we push them away.
In a way, we "dehumanize" the saintsin the sense of placing
them on pedestals out of our reach. Over time we have forgotten
that the saints were human beings, just like us. This tendency to
separate the saints from their humanity can be seen even within
the Bible itself.
King David: saint and sinner
One of the most important figures in
the Old Testament is King David. David was still a boy when he was
chosen by God. Samuel came and anointed him to succeed Saul as king
(1 Sam 16:6-13). After coming to Saul's camp, David attracted attention
by slaying Goliath (1 Sam 17). He became a close friend of Saul's
son, Jonathan, and married Saul's daughter, Michal (1 Sam 18). He
showed a real piety in sparing the life of Saul when Saul was seeking
to kill him (1 Sam 24,26).
But there is more to the picture. Once
David was ensconced in Jerusalem, reigning as king over all the
tribes, he began to abuse his power. He saw, coveted and committed
adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged the murder of her husband,
Uriah (2 Sam 11). Confronted by the prophet, Nathan, he repented
(2 Sam 12; later Jewish tradition will put Psalm 51 in his mouth
in this context).
David's problems continued, however.
His family was torn apart by strife and division, problems he aggravated
by the way he dealt with his children. One of his generals had to
trick David into taking his royal responsibilities more seriously
(2 Sam 14). As he lay dying, he called Solomon to his bedside to
give him some last advice, telling him of certain persons that should
be killed off: "...you must bring [Shimei's] gray head down with
blood to Sheol. Then David slept with his ancestors" (1 Kgs 2:5-10).
David's last words are about killing. A very human David seems to
have had problems with sex, family and violence!
If we continue reading in the Books
of Kings, however, we notice a certain backing off from David's
sinfulness. David's heart, we are told, was truly with the Lord;
he followed the Lord completely in his life (1 Kgs 11:4,6). David
has become the complete and faithful follower of God's covenant
law, who did only what was right and did not turn aside to right
or left! He is the norm by which all subsequent kings are judged
(e.g., 1 Kgs 14:8; 2 Kgs 16:2; 22:2)! Is this the David we met before?
The process of cleaning up David and
placing him above human vulnerability will reach its peak in the
first Book of Chronicles (1129). Not a word about Bathsheba
or his problem children! In fact, anything from the Books of Samuel
which would reflect unfavorably on David is carefully omitted. David's
primary function now is to capture Jerusalem and lay all of the
plans for the building of the Temple and for the worship which would
take place there.
Special attention is given to the Temple
musicians (1 Chr 25). In 1 Sam 16: 14-23, David was "skillful in
playing the lyre." Now he is well on his way to being the great
patron and composer of psalms. David's last words are no longer
political advice about assassinations, but a great prayer to God
in the context of a public worship service (1 Chr 29:10-20). The
transformation could not be more complete. David has been "canonized."
Jesus, model of saints
The model and the norm of Christian
sanctity is found in Jesus Christ. As truly divine, Jesus reveals
to us what God is like. As truly human, he reveals to us what it
means to be fully human. His life, his behavior, his teaching show
us what it means to be holy. We find this especially in the Gospels.
Each of the Gospels reflects both the human and the divine side
of the mystery of Jesus, but the emphasis changes. If we look at
the earliest and the latest of the Gospels, we will see a movement
similar to that found in the story of David.
In the earliest of the Gospels, Mark,
composed around 70 A.D., Jesus is indeed God's unique Son, filled
with divine power (1:11; 9:7) but he also comes across as very human
and very emotional. He feels anger (3:5) and indignation (10:14)
and is surprised by the lack of faith he encounters (6:6). He is
moved by feelings of love (10:21) and compassion (1:41; 6:34). When
asked about the time of the end of the world, he acknowledges ignorance
(13:32). He goes forward to his death with heart-wrenching sorrow
and grief (14:34), and dies with a lament and loud cry (15:34,37).
When we turn to the last of the Gospels,
John, composed around 90 A.D., a very different picture emerges.
Jesus is indeed the Word made flesh (1:14) with human feelings (see
11:5, 33-38), but he comes across as a transcendent, majestic figure.
He knows what he will do and what others will do (2:25). He assures
his disciples in advance that he is freely giving up his life (10:17-18).
There is no agony in the garden; Jesus is completely in charge (18:4-6).
When he is brought before Pilate, Pilate may think he is in control,
but it is actually Jesus who leads the discussion (18:33-38; 19:9-12).
He dies only when he says that all is fulfilled (19:30). As one
writer has observed, in John, Jesus is human but his feet barely
touch the ground.
The tension between Jesus' divinity
and his humanity is challenging. It is much easier to let go of
one side or the other: Either Jesus is not Godjust a great
(even the greatest) humanor Jesus is not human but divine.
Throughout its history, Christianity has affirmed the necessity
of holding on to both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus.
In the early Christian centuries, responding
to various heresies, Jesus' divinity came to be stressed. Later,
in the Middle Ages, the sense of Jesus' humanness was rediscovered
(St. Francis of Assisi is a key example), but then the pendulum
swung the other way after the Reformation. Only with Vatican Council
II has an appreciation of Jesus' humanness emerged once again.
PETER & PAUL
Two important New Testament saints are Peter and Paul, but what
disparate personalities! Peter, the simple Galilean fisherman, was
the leader of the apostles, but he could at times be impetuous (Mt
14:28-31; 16:21-23), even denying Jesus after his arrest (Mt 26:69-75).
He was forgiven much and would give up his life for the gospel (John
Paul, on the other hand, was a highly
educated cosmopolitan Jew from Tarsus. We know how he persecuted
Christians with a vengeance, before converting to Christ and devoting
his life to spreading the good news. But he remained a testy characternot
always the easiest person to deal with (recall his confrontation
with Peter in Gal 2:11-14). Paul too would lay down his life for
the gospel. The two great apostles who apparently had some trouble
sharing the same room now share the same feast day (June 29).
AUGUSTINE & JEROME
St. Jerome (approximately 340-420), after a good education and much
travel, became a priest and devoted himself to a life of asceticism
and contemplation focused especially on the Scriptures as the word
of God. "To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ,"
he once said. After the death in 384 of Pope Damasus, whose secretary
he had been, Jerome went to Bethlehem where he produced a new translation
of the Bible into Latin (which would be the basic Bible in the West
for over 1,000 years).
St. Augustine (354-430), a younger contemporary
of Jerome, was also highly educated. After turning from a life of
sin, he became a priest, then bishop of Hippo in North Africa. As
a theologian and spiritual writer, he had a massive influence on
the shape and character of theology and piety in the West.
These two great saints, though, had
a lively exchange of letters, arguing the merits and demerits of
Jerome's new Latin translation of the Bible. Augustine suggests
to Jerome "that you may occasionally be mistaken." Jerome replies,
"I see no need to respond to the honeyed compliments with which
you try to sugarcoat your censure of my opinions." In fact, Jerome
seems to have had trouble getting along not only with Augustine
but with others as well! He called St. Ambrose "an ugly crow" who
"decked himself out in peacock feathers"!
BERNARD & WILLIAM
In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a multitalented
figure: a monk, founder of many monasteries, spiritual writer, papal
emissary, preacher, promoter of Church reform. Meanwhile in England
(in 1140), a lesser-known saint, William Fitzherbert, a relative
of the king, was named bishop of York. Due to political and ecclesiastical
complexities, he faced much opposition.
Bernard, adding his renowned voice to
the opposition, was hardly a model of charity when he described
William as "rotten from the top of his head to the soles of his
feet." After being restored to his see, William harbored no resentment
toward his enemies. He lived a penitential life and was much loved
by the people. In 1227, less than 75 years after his death in 1154,
William too was canonized as a saint.
What is a saint?
Is it ungracious for us to recall the
all-too-human side of sanctity? Not really. In fact, it is absolutely
necessary that we do so. It is not enough to describe a saint "as
someone who dies and goes to heaven." They are saints here and now,
or they will never become saints after death.
Indeed, saints are saints on earth,
in and through their humanness. They have all the limitations of
human existence: personality problems, failures, mistakes, errors
in judgment, even at times sins. They are further limited by their
times and cultures. Saints are not perfect, but they show us that
a wholehearted Christian life is possible.
It is possible to love God above all
things and to center one's life on Jesus and the Kingdom he preached.
It was possible for the saints, and it is possible for each one
of us. A saint says, "Look at me. If I, with all my problems, can
do it, with God's help, so can you."
By the wisdom of God, one writer has
said with a touch of wry humor, the Church has been enriched with
so many saints that there are plenty for everyone to thoroughly
dislike. Not only that, there were saints who thoroughly disliked
But should this really surprise us?
The saints can be successful models for us only to the extent that
we allow them to be real human beings (just like us), living in
the real world (just like us). They remind us that we are all called
to be better than we aremore loving, more life-giving, more
peace-making, more justice-doingin the image of Christ. And
it is possible.
In the New Testament, the term saint
often is a synonym for Christian. Christians are called to
belong to Jesus Christ, to be part of his holy people, to be saints
(Rom 1:6-7). In the epistles, the Christians in a given area are
often referred to as "the saints" in Jerusalem, Corinth, Ephesus
Perhaps we need to recapture a sense
of this and not think of the saints only as dead people who were
perfect. We are saints and are called to become saints more and
more in our lives. It has been said that "saints are sinners who
keep on trying."
Newcomers to religious orders are asked
to study the virtues of the saint who founded the order they are
joining. I've often thought it would be interesting for any us also
to reflect on "how that saint would drive me crazy!" We might learn
some things about ourselves; we might also learn some things about
Somehow, I do not think the saints would
mind. They were honest about their human shortcomings and need for
God. It is we who shy away from the challenge of the saints:
of growing to our fullest Christian humanness. None of us is
called to be more than human; but we certainly are not called to
be less. That is what sainthood is all about.
Next: Advent Day by Day (by Alice