Along with Papal infallibility, priestly celibacy, and Marian Dogmas, the veneration of saints is probably one of the most well known (and controversial) facets of the Catholic faith. Everyone knows that Catholic’s have saints, people who did the will of God in times past. We know their names, we venerate their images, celebrate their feast days, but have we missed something? Certainly we haven’t missed their lives, we know the lives of at least a few saints very well; the Apostles, St. Francis, St. Ignatius, they’re all fairly well known to the average Catholic. However, there is a strange thing that seems to happen when we discuss these great men and women of the faith.
We make them fluffy.
Allow me to explain. Our saints become much like the greeting card Cherubim or the ”my buddy Jesus” motif which took the incarnate Word of God and reduced Him to a winking, bearded, hippie giving you a “thumbs up” because “you’re awesome, man.” Maybe you are awesome…man, but regardless it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is not the Jesus of the Gospels. And just the same, our saints are leveled out into something palatable.
The most blatant example of this is St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis, in reality, was young, hot tempered, and radically devoted to God, His Church and His liturgy. He was a man who was so dissatisfied with his father’s love for money that he stripped naked in order to remove all that his father had given him. This is a man who, when not only refused entrance into a lodging of his own friars because they did not recognize him, but also beaten for fear that he was there to rob them, remarked that “this is perfect joy,” that is, joy in the unity with Christ’s sufferings on the Cross. He even went as far as to go before the Sultan and request that he convert to Christianity during the Crusades.
And in our popular sentiment all of this, a man’s whole life, and not only just that, but a man’s whole life which was devoted to God and the service of the poor, is reduced to this:
Oh, sorry… I mean, this:
The similarity speaks volumes. We have done this disservice to our saints, we have made them flat, and palatable. We reject the fact that they are those who have done something great and reduce their achievement and devotion, their faith and zeal, to something as whimsical and fruitless as “nice.” Christianity becomes not an act of faith, not a relationship with a personal God, but a fleeting quality within our long list of fleeting qualities, “nice.”
But if ever you find yourself fooled in saying that a saint is, by necessity, one who is “nice,” allow me to point you in the direction of Saint Jerome, perhaps the grumpiest man to have ever existed…
So, instead of the fleeting “nice” there is a reality of the saints that should be called to attention whenever we discuss them, they are knights of faith. They are, in Sartrean terms, the existential heros, if ever there were any. They’re the one’s who hear the word of God, and act.