An elderly woman had a great devotion to St. Anthony, whom many people turn to for assistance in finding lost items. Whenever the woman lost something, she’d say a prayer to him and promise to put a donation in the church poor box, and this system never failed her; the missing item always turned up immediately afterwards. However, as she became older and more forgetful, the woman misplaced her glasses, her rosary, her cell phone, and other various other things more and more frequently. Finally she said, “I’m not going to promise St. Anthony any more money—I think he’s started hiding my things on purpose” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Jokes Priests Can Tell, Vol. 4, #421).
We know, of course, that neither St. Anthony nor any other saint would do something like that, but this story is interesting and attractive because it shows that the saints can be understood in a friendly, down-to-earth way. Too often we think of them only as being “up there”—but they’re also supposed to be “down here,” serving as models, guides, and sources of inspiration and encouragement for all of us in our daily lives. Sainthood should also be a reality here and now in another sense: we are called to holiness, and to be living signs of faith and of Divine Love and Mercy. It’s very easy to assume this is beyond our ability, or something to which only exceptionally holy people are called—but that’s not the case. Anyone can be a saint—not by doing great religious deeds, but simply by surrendering completely to God’s love. We can’t “earn” sainthood, but we can allow and accept it—and this process is supposed to begin here and now.
God wishes everyone to be saved, and He gives His people the grace necessary for this to happen, as our readings show. The Book of Revelation (7:2-4, 9-14) describes “a huge crowd which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” These citizens of heaven were purified by washing their robes in the blood of the Lamb—in other words, through the grace of Jesus, they were able to serve God by living a holy life on earth, in spite of difficulties and persecution. The multitude of persons around God’s throne cried out, “Salvation is from our God!”—that is, they didn’t earn the right to dwell in heaven, but humbly accepted this glorious destiny as God’s generous gift. The Lord’s amazing generosity is further described in the First Letter of St. John (3:1-3), in which St. John states that we are already God’s sons and daughters—not only in the heavenly life to come, but here and now in our earthly lives. Children, of course, imitate their parents, and we must try to imitate God our Father in His love and mercy. Parents help their children, so we know that God will help us to be like Him. This is the sort of single-heartedness Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of Matthew (5:1-12): a desire to be holy like God, and to see His will done in all things. Jesus promises us that, if we are poor in spirit in this sense—placing God’s will ahead of our own—the reign of God will be given to us; our heavenly Father will satisfy our hunger and thirst for holiness.
Most Christians, I suspect, are content just to get by in a spiritual sense, to be decent people with an eventual goal of reaching heaven—and if they think of sainthood, they imagine it happening to someone else, not themselves. The truth, however, is that we are all called to be saints—probably not by becoming famous and doing great things like Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II, but simply by loving the Lord with all our hearts and giving His grace free rein to work within us. Of course, we can raise all sorts of objections or think of practical difficulties—but upon examination, they come to nothing.
For instance, do we think, “I’ll never be a saint—my temper is too strong”? St. Jerome was troubled by a fierce temper, and it was a lifelong struggle to control it—but in the end it didn’t keep him from becoming holy. Do we tell ourselves, “I can’t be a saint because of my ongoing temptations against sexual purity”? Remember, Mary Magdalene was a sinful woman in this regard, but she responded to Jesus’ love, and became a great saint; the same thing was true of numerous other persons in the Church’s history. Do we find ourselves attracted to a worldly lifestyle? So did many future saints, such as Ignatius of Loyola; after his conversion, however, his life took a radically different direction. Do the negative opinions other people have of us convince us we could never be good enough or smart enough to be holy? St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the holiest and greatest scholars and thinkers in history—but when he was going to school, his classmates thought so little of him they nicknamed him the “Dumb Ox.”
Do we fear the difficulty we have in obeying God’s will may keep us from becoming holy? St. Joan of Arc was imprisoned by her enemies; she disobeyed God by trying to escape and almost killed herself in the process, but she repented, and was forgiven. Do we worry that striving for holiness will inevitably interfere with our enjoyment of life? St. Alphonsus Liguori knew better. He loved theater music—but the only place it was played was at strip-tease shows. He attended these—but being extremely near-sighted, he simply removed his glasses, so that he heard and enjoyed the music without seeing the immoral dancing that accompanied it. Do we believe we’re incapable of doing great things the way the saints did? St. Therese of Lisieux—the Little Flower—discovered what she called her “little way of the Cross”: doing everything, no matter how simple or routine, with great love. That’s an example we can all imitate.
Every possible objection we can raise to the idea of our personal quest for holiness can be answered with an example from the lives of one of the saints. I’m called to holiness—and so are you. I try to respond, but quite often fall short. Nonetheless, I don’t grow discouraged, because I realize it’s a lifelong process, and that God is in charge, not me. You have the right to challenge me to be holy—and I have the right and duty to challenge you to grow in the same way. I do hereby challenge you: let God take control of your life, let His grace be active within you, and let Him make you a saint. The French author Leon Bloy once wrote, “In the end, there will be only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” This is true, for only those who strive for holiness—even if just in simple, everyday ways—can reasonably hope for eternal life in heaven. We can’t earn our sainthood, but we can allow it and accept it—and right now is the time to begin.