“We are all called to be great Saints. Don’t miss the opportunity”
Being a Christian is hard. There are so many trials and challenges and sometimes, we can feel it’s almost impossible. We hear about callings and Saints and it’s often hard to relate that to our own lives. Priests have callings. Nuns have callings. These are individuals who have been given a special grace from God and a mission to share that grace through a certain ministry but often we can feel detached from that example. Holiness is something reserved for others, not for us. It’s so unattainable and so difficult. If we don’t hear God’s voice, how do we know what He wants from us? That’s why Mother Angelica’s quote on Sainthood appears as the tagline of this blog because it answers that question perfectly. We all have a calling. Our calling is to holiness and all we have to do is take the opportunity. But can we really achieve Sainthood? Surely that’s something reserved for so few people?
When you think of the Saints, you probably think of holy hermits or determined nuns, selfless martyrs or great Church figures of the past. They can sometimes seem remote to us, a benchmark of holiness that we could never attain ourselves, because the things they did were so awesome. But what Mother Angelica’s quote expresses so beautifully is that Sainthood isn’t reserved for perfect men and women from days gone by. Sainthood isn’t just an honorific. Sainthood is the church’s way of telling us that an individual took that opportunity. They each had temptations and failures, they fell into sin and struggled to carry their crosses just as we do but their Sainthood began with them saying yes to God. And we can all do that, as hard as it may seem at first. Saints were soldiers, teenagers, Popes, beggars, thieves, Cardinals, children and nurses. They were teachers, priests, painters, architects, stigmatists, politicians and lechers. The one thing they all had in common was their devotion to God. And yet, even if we feel called to it and accept that opportunity as they did, what exactly is the Communion of the Saints and how does one become a Saint?
There are three states in the Roman Catholic Church: The Church Militant, The Church Penitent and The Church Triumphant. The Church Militant consists of you and me. And everyone else on the planet for that matter. We carry the obligation to evangelise, to protect, to worship and to praise God. The Church Penitent consists of those in purgatory who are preparing for their reception into heaven. The Church Triumphant is comprised of those who are already in heaven. But how do we know they’re in heaven? Well, all three of these “states” make up the Communion of Saints which we reaffirm our belief in as part of the Apostle’s Creed but as far as actual confirmed Saints go, we rely on the Church to indicate that they have gone beyond the first two states (Militant and Penitent) and have entered the third – Triumphant. When a person dies, there may be a local devotion to them which petitions their local Bishop to raise a cause for them with the Vatican, specifically the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If the Congregation agrees that a cause (investigation) should be opened then something called a ‘Nihil Obstat’ (No Obstruction) is promulgated and the individual in question is formally known as a Servant of God.
Usually, a person must wait for five years after their death before a Nihil Obstat can be served but the Pope has the authority to waive this requirement (as Pope St John Paul II did for St Theresa of Calcutta). But once someone is proclaimed a Servant of God, it doesn’t automatically mean they will progress all the way to Sainthood. There are still three stages left in the process. The second relies on someone called a Postulator, appointed by the Vatican, to look into the writings and accounts of the individual and to assess their life and works. What the Postulator is most concerned with is that the individual lived a life “of heroic virtue”. Pope Benedict XIV defined heroic virtue as something which “enables its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations”. In other words, they performed good Christian acts with selflessness and love in the face of great difficulty or trial. Once a person has been found to have possessed heroic virtue, they’re known as ‘Venerable’ and have passed stage two.
The third and fourth stage require something a little more. And by little, we mean remarkable. Usually, two miracles must then be attributed and proven as being performed by the individual though again, this requirement can be waived by the Pope. After the first miracle, the individual is beatified – that is, they gain the status and style of Blessed. By this time, they are well and truly confirmed as being part of the Church Triumphant and with the declaration of a second miracle, the beatified individual goes forward to canonisation and amidst great celebration, the individual becomes a Saint. If it sounds like a fairly straight forward process, bear in mind that some individuals have been “stuck” at the Venerable or Blessed stage of canonisation for hundreds of years. Some may never progress to Sainthood. And yet we’re encouraged to pray to them for their intercession all the same because we know they are in Heaven and can do great things. “But hang on”, I hear my protestant friends muttering, “Jesus never told us to pray to Saints or worship the dead. Quite the opposite in fact…..” – You’re absolutely right. And this is a huge misconception when it comes to Catholicism and the Saints. The Saints never replace Jesus in our devotion. They bring us closer to Him and God told us to make use of them.
Father Mitch Pacwa explains this perfectly when he points us to the Book of Genesis where we read that in a dream, God commanded King Abimelech to ask Abraham to intercede for him. “For Abraham is a prophet and he will pray for you, so you shall live”. And later in the Book of Job, the Lord (angry with Job’s friends who are making statements about God that are not correct) says “Let my servant Job pray for you because I will accept his prayer, lest I make a terror on you”. This isn’t to say that God needs go-betweens or that He can’t do it alone. Of course He can. But He knows our weaknesses, He knows our fragile we can be and what better than to have a heavenly family to help us on our journey? In this new series of posts ‘Saints in Profile’, I hope you’ll come to know more about that heavenly family and draw closer to them because their examples of holiness can inspire us to say yes to God, to take the opportunity and to become more holy in our own lives. To become more like Jesus. The Saints are your friends. They want to help. We have our Father in Heaven, we have our Mother in Heaven. Why not embrace your friends in Heaven too?