What’s a Saint?


Repost 2012

When I gave an “adult education” talk not long ago at a parish in New Orleans, I asked the participants to write out for me the definition of a saint before I gave them my own.

Whence the Saint?

I read through them all, and immediately noticed a pattern. While they all offered beautiful and accurate descriptions of virtuous behavior, not a single one mentioned that holiness has anything to do with God.

Now, I am not saying that they would not have brought in a more God-centered view if I had posed the question differently, but it speaks to what I believe is a pervasive view of Christian life among Catholics: that being a nice/good person is holiness, that holiness is what we do, and that heaven is what we get for what we do.

The rest of the night I affirmed their lovely and noble insights, but attempted to re-plant their insights into the Heart of Christ where all of the best of human striving is “caught up into divine love,” as Vatican II says it. I talked of sin, grace, sacraments, virtue and prayer, and argued that falling headlong into Christ is God’s way to God. And that means having a personal relationship with Him is for Catholics a sine qua non. I used stories of saints — especially St. Augustine– who found their vices healed, their virtues kindled and discovered profound meaning in life by loving Jesus. I shared this famous excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Even after all that, their faces seemed puzzled at my high emphasis on the need for Catholics to cultivate a relationship with Jesus. One said, “This sounds kinda Protestant,” and another said, “I’ve worked in Church ministries for 20 years and it’s just never occurred to me to have a relationship or friendship with Jesus.”

I was flummoxed. Then I decided to recount the story of an RCIA Candidate I knew in Florida back in the late 1990s — and that finally elicited from one of them an “aha” moment.

This RCIA seeker, from a Protestant background, had been struggling with a number of core Church teachings (e.g. contraception, Marian doctrine). I would spend lots of time with her outside the RCIA evenings dishing out the best rational apologetics I knew. Sometimes for a full hour afterward. She was smart! I was convinced I could argue her into the profession of faith.

But I was humbled to the dust one evening when she pulled me aside after class to share with me a profound experience of Jesus she had had that week while she was driving in her car, and just cried out in frustration: “Jesus, I just don’t get it! If you want me to be Catholic you have to help me out here.”  She said, “Suddenly I felt His overwhelming presence in the car, a presence of unimaginably tender love … as soon as I found myself in love with Christ, everything suddenly made sense. But I am not exactly sure why.’

I thought to myself, “Oh, yes, Jesus. Right. Good point.”

At once I recalled a comment the late, great Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown had made in a lecture I heard him give in Burlington, Vermont back in 1990. He said:

Christianity, unlike any other religion, stands or falls on one central conviction: to be saved, you must love the Founder who first loved you…only when Christianity has prioritized this conviction has it flourished.

Years later I shared this comment with a non-Christian colleague at Florida State. He said, “Hmm. Well, you’re a Christian. You got Christ in your name. Seems self-evident to me.”

I’m just slow.

Let me share with you Matt Maher’s musical setting of that great Augustine’s prayer:

5 comments on “What’s a Saint?

  1. Rex Magnus says:

    What would to say to sainthood as: Imperfection, perfectly manifested?

  2. Paige says:

    Well done! He makes way more interesting saints that we could ever fabricate ourselves.

    This reminds me to of the refocusing of God’s call in discernment as opposed to a more external approach to decision making. I spoke to some young people at World Youth Day this Sunday at Loyola about this and it was this nearness of God that was what we were hungry for! His transforming closeness makes everything an adventure!

  3. number one sinner says:

    Now I thought a saint was someone who got to have a St. Put before their name because two miracles had been attributed to them some before but mostly after their earthly death. If that’s the case then my wife of many many many years qualifies hands down. To have put up with me for even one day would make anyone a saint. She often says my second child a girl ,well a grown women now,is just like me.my son in law confirms this testament. Oh how lucky is he he came into the faith two years ago this past easter and already a saint. E enough silliness. Dearest Thomas AS I HAVE LOVED YOU, the ebbs and flows of this virtue throughout our Christian history including the ebbed me me me culture of today has ,is, and will continue to give us those individuals GOD knows Holy Mother Church needs to continue being a fertile ground ready for those countless seeds just waiting to be watered by that MASTER gardener and his many apprentices . So apprentice Thomas continue your watering of this and many other seeds as we thirst.P.B.W.Y. always.

    • Your wife is undoubtedly a saint! Many many many years with a nos qualifies her as Christ-like. 🙂 As ever, I am grateful for your sharing spontaneous insights and stories here for all to see. God bless your day, my friend and laborer for the Kingdom!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing this insight. I am struck by how asking someone to define a saint expresses so much of their understanding/experience of their faith/relationship with Christ. It’s a good formative assessment question!

    I have the absolute pleasure of teaching “Saints” class to our grade 6-8 students (11-13 year olds) which is a reading comp and vocabulary course based on biographies of Saints. (I’m so blessed!!!) We also study the lives of some who are beatified or venerated, but not yet canonized so we get into interesting discussions of what a Saint/saint is, the canonization process, etc. And -God bless these beautiful souls and their incredible parents- so many of them desire to be saints themselves. I love them! What we come down to is: A saint is someone who is completely sold out for God, who takes seriously to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself. Saints love like crazy.

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