For all the saints (including all the jerks)

For all the saints (including all the jerks) October 31, 2014

A few years ago, Max Lindenman asked “What saints can’t you stand?” The responses are pretty interesting: There are some saints that no one likes, because they were unpleasant weirdos. Then there are some that inspire and enchant some people, while repelling and disgusting others. For me, St. John Vianney is one of these repellant types. Every time I hear a saint quote that makes me go, “WHAT?!?!” it turns out to be St. John Vianney. Oh, well—there are plenty of other saints.

When John Paul II was canonized, all of my favorite people were overjoyed that this holy man was being honored, but some Catholics were dubious, even snotty. Some simply don’t like him (how??), while others had serious doubts about his worthiness. It occurs to me that, when people react differently to the saints, there are three lessons to be drawn.

First is that even saints are a product of their times. Sincere spirituality takes different forms according to fads and culture—that’s just the human condition. And so when Padre Pio threw the lady out of his confessional and refused to speak to her until she stopped selling pants to women—well, he was a man of his times. At the time, selling women’s pants truly was a deliberate assault against gender distinction as it existed in that time. The woman in question probably was doing something wrong, just as a woman from the Middle Ages would have been doing something wrong by showing her bare knees: It’s not because knees or pants are intrinsically evil, but because it’s all about context and intention.

Now, it’s very possible that a Padre Pio alive in 2014 would be just as furious at a female pants-seller of 2014. And there’s our second lesson, which is: Saints can be jerks, too. Saints are not infallible; saint are not flawless. Saints sin. They may say or do t hings which are false, silly or harmful. If a priest today threw a woman out of confession for selling pants, he’d be sinning. He might still be a saint: He’d just have to go to confession for that particular sin.

And the third lesson we can learn is that this variety in saintliness is a feature, not a bug. When I adore Saint Fonofrius, but you think he’s a drippy bore, that’s part of God’s plan. It’s one of those “Catholic with a small c” ideas: The Church is here for everybody. While there are certain things that every single living soul is called to, there is always a matter of proportion. For some saints, generosity is their talent. For others, it’s great physical courage. For some saints, their entire lives tell a story of incredible singlemindedness and purity of intention; for others, God used them as the finest living example of someone who kept screwing up, repenting and trying again.

God is the light, and the saints are various types of lamps: Some produce a lovely glow; some produce a brilliant beam. Some make more heat; others are better for atmosphere. Some are for ballrooms, some are for bedsides, some are for keeping traffic orderly. The light inside is the same, but different styles show that light in different ways. A surgeon wouldn’t use a Tiffany lamp in the operating room—but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the Tiffany lamp. It’s just not the right one for that particular job.

So, the grumblers against John Paul II wish he had been a better administrator? Me too. But it wasn’t his particular talent. They wish John Paul II had been more canny, more suspicious of Maciel? Me too, and can you even imagine how much he must have wished it himself. But that wasn’t his particular talent.

When he trusted Maciel, it was a mistake committed because he was a product of his times (nearly everyone trusted Maciel; the Legionaries were apparently bearing wonderful fruit; and false accusations of pedophilia were a common tactic in his home country). It’s also possible that he committed this mistake because of personal flaw: He was Pope, and should have been more careful. (That is absolutely not for me to say—but this is a man who went to confession daily, so he clearly thought he was a sinner.)

But let’s not forget the third lesson: A saint is someone who does the most he can with his particular gifts from God. John Paul’s particular talents were an incredible strength and courage, a contagious joy, a spectacularly original mind, and an unprecedented ability to reach out and draw people to Christ. All of his works were works of love. And that’s why he was declared a saint: He used what God gave him to reflect his share of the light of Christ.

[This post originally ran in a slightly different form in 2011.]


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  • Liberty

    This made me LOL: “Every time I hear a saint quote that makes me go, “WHAT?!?!” it turns
    out to be St. John Vianney. Oh, well—there are plenty of other saints.”

    • Peggy Bowes

      I’m sure he was a great man, but all his portraits just look so prissy>

      • Episteme

        It’s how much his portraits look like William Hartnell that worry me. I want to hide them all from Doctor Who fans…

      • ThereseZ

        He definitely was not a looker.
        My teeth are always set on edge by St Faustina. Her writing style just chaps my hide.

  • jenny

    Wow, you read my mind with Padre Pio.

    Back in Europe, till not long ago, you could see women and girls going to church, at minus 10, minus 20 degrees Celsius, wearing skirts and short socks.

    Too many of them have their ovaries damaged by the freezing cold.

    And what the priest read from the Bible -Old Testament – right there in the church ? “…barren women are cursed by God… ”

    Even today, we can see old women, dragging their swollen legs to church, wearing skirts and short socks – while men wear double-double winter pants.

    • Peggy Bowes

      I’m sorry, “Too many of them have their ovaries damaged by the freezing cold”???????? Is that sarcasm or a joke?

      • jenny

        That is the reality……in the church it was freezing cold, almost impossible to sit down. No washrooms, no drinking water….
        But walking to church for such a long time, in freezing temperature, that was damaging for women and girls….

        • MightyMighty1

          I have never heard of women’s ovaries being damaged by walking in the cold. Can you find some research on this? Why wouldn’t it affect men even more–given where their gonads are?

    • Anna

      That’s fashion, not faith. Those same old women do their grocery shopping around Rome in those same skirts and high heels. It isn’t as if long heavy winter skirts, wool stockings, and long underwear haven’t been around for centuries or that it was Padre Pio’s directive that Italian females could only wear short skirts and bobby socks.

      And I doubt that any church built before the advent of indoor plumbing had washrooms; one doesn’t get the impression from the (American, Protestant) Laura Ingalls books that their churches had much in the way of modern amenities. Nor that the churches were colder than their houses, though those high-ceilinged, stone-and-marble churches of Europe would have been colder than the small early American churches. But that was hardly by evil design of anyone, let alone an attempt to freeze women’s internal organs and then condemn them for it.

    • anniefitz

      I’m from Europe and we have these things called wooly tights we wear under our skirts. My great grandmother and grandmother wore winter skirts which tended to be long and pleated. Wool and tweed were used in such garments. I have never heard of ovary damage in this context. In any case traditionally women left their ovaries in tin cups on the overmantle to keep warm whenever they left the house. The robust birthrate of mostly Europe prior to the advent of the 1960’s and the pill would argue against the damaged ovaries idea. In past centuries it was suggested that women who read books would damage their reproducive organs. I think this is a similar myth only directed at the church to give the impression it opresses women. We could just as easily put out the idea that belted trousers or tight jeans impede the blood supply to the female reproductive system. See how it jumps around?

  • jenny

    Wow, Pope Francis managed to squeeze 2 women beside 10 men, into the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

    From yesterday Vatican News::

    The full list is as follows:
    –Fr. Bernard Ardura, O. Praem.,
    –Msgr. Alejandro Cifres Gimenez,
    –Fr. Paolo Carlotti, S.D.B., Italy, advisor to the Apostolic Penitentiary;
    –Fr. Tomislav Mrkonjic, O.F.M. Conv.,
    –Fr. Paul Murray, O.P.,
    –Fr. Martin McKeever, C.S.S.R.,
    –Fr. Jordi-Agusti Pique i Collado,
    –Fr. Rocco Ronzani, O.S.A.,
    –Fr. Pablo Santiago Zambruno,
    –Fr. Raffaele Di.
    –Professor Gabriele Zaccagnini,
    –Professor Angela Ales Bello.

    My husband, the unborn baby and I, may get a chance to wear pants at church,,,,, if we get pregnant this coming winter…

    • Silvina Leonnetti

      I only see one lady in the list, Professor Angela. Gabriele is a man’s name in Italian. But it’s a great step 🙂

  • Sheila C.

    For me it’s Padre Pio. Every time there’s a story about Padre Pio, it’s usually something that leaves me feeling vaguely disapproving. To make it worse, our pastor once served Mass for Padre Pio and feels the need to work this information into every. single. homily. I’m sure he’s a great saint, but I am GLAD he was never my confessor!

  • Silvina Leonnetti

    Now to be fair, a lot of what we know of some saints comes from their biographies, and many of these writers are definitely a product of their time, too. Read the most famous biography of Vianney, and you start disliking the Cure after a few chapters…

    • Anna

      Good point! Hence the Little Flower ending up sounding more prissily perfect than she actually was since her superior edited her diary so much.

      • Sheila C.

        I was so happy to hear it had been edited. I kept hearing “oh, I love the Little Flower, she’s so real!” and thinking, “I know I’ve read the book, and she was pretty much perfect through the whole dang thing, what gives?” Then I found out St. Therese had a really, really hard time praying the rosary. Now THAT’s encouraging to me. If saints have no struggles I really can’t identify.

  • Anna

    I see the editor got tired of the Opus Dei blowback…

  • Lydia

    “for others, God used them as the finest living example of someone who kept screwing up, repenting and trying again.”
    Could I impose upon somebody to name one or two of those? Because that sounds very encouraging.

    • Heather

      St. Peter? I love that guy.

      • Lydia


      • MightyMighty1

        And the other apostles who have ran off into the night? The thief on the cross?

  • anniefitz

    I’ve read about St. John Vianney and Padre Pio and I found them very refreshing after years of meeting with the “softly, softly” timid priests of my childhood and teenage years. St. Vianney and St. Pio are spiritual dynamite! Often to bring a soul back requires tough love and these saints provide it. Gruff as they were tens of thousands waited patiently for a week or even two to have their confessions heard. For my part I have trouble with the meekly, meekly, passive saints. A wise priest once said of things that drive us loopy in others: “If you can spot it- you got it”

  • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

    Jose Escriva is the one who gets me going. Every quote of his I’ve read makes me hate men for awhile, and then I remember it’s just Escriva being Escriva and chill out.