Through a Lens Darkly
Saints Are People Too
As one of only a half-dozen entries on the Vatican's "Great Films" list that deals directly with the life of a saint, the film's artistic merits alone would make it worthy of consideration. Pierre Fresnay's performance in the title role is unquestionably deserving of the praise it has received over the years, and the film's spare black-and-white cinematography is the perfect complement to the story's often traumatic images of poverty and suffering. Yet the film's spiritual insights are equally noteworthy, its message an implied refutation of the natural human tendency to mystify and dehumanize our heroes.
More Jerome than Thérèse, Monsieur Vincent's tireless exertions on behalf of his beloved poor are threatened by the sharpness of his tongue for those he sees as obstacles to his important work. When his faithful followers balk at the added burden of caring for Paris' orphaned infants, Monsieur Vincent lashes out, decrying their unwillingness to give above and beyond what they have already given. "I was a fool," he says harshly, "to believe I could move your souls; that I could lead you out of your repulsive solitude." And while it is this very feistiness and singleness of purpose that mark him as the perfect man for the job, his reaction is both unfair and uncharitable. It is, in fact, entirely human.
Therein lies the film's simplest but most important message: Saints are humans, too. As exemplars of heroic virtue worthy of devotion and emulation, their humanity plays a key role in our ability to recognize their sanctity and to follow it. Saints are important precisely because they share the same frailties and failings as we do, not in spite of them. To see their beatitude as some sort of preternatural condition rather than the fruits of relentless self-mortification and struggle would both diminish their spiritual accomplishments and absolve us from the harsh obligation of following in their footsteps. Their imperfections and mistakes do not reduce their effectiveness as role models; they increase it. As humans, they force us to confront ourselves and do things we'd rather not do, and make changes we'd rather not make.
Saints make life hard. But they also make it clear.
There are no cookie-cutter saints, just as there are no cookie-cutter humans. Yet the one trait all the saints share is a relentless drive and desire for sanctity. No matter how long or tortuous their road may have been, no matter how severe their imperfections or how strong the temptations to give up, they never relinquish their pursuit of spiritual perfection. The Church points to that extraordinary focus and singleness of purpose when it proclaims someone worthy of our emulation, not the quality of their administrative abilities or the flawlessness of each action or judgment. "This one," she says, "is with Him in paradise."
Let us be careful not to substitute our human expectations and requirements for His own.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.