We think of saints as perfect people with halos on their heads. At least that’s the way they are pictured in religious art. But in his new papal exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” Pope Francis tells us that saints are actually ordinary people, who do ordinary things, day-in and day-out.
Saints certainly are not perfect people. Some of the Church’s great saints were people who had to confront their own sinfulness and struggled to find ways to live their lives. Saints like Augustine, Peter, and Paul are saints with well-known flaws, who underwent conversions before finding their ways in life.
Most saints will never be recognized with official beatification and holiness. They did the simple things that they were supposed to do. The Pope points to parents who take care of their children, the men and women who work hard – maybe two jobs – to
support their families, and folks who find time to perform simple corporal works of mercy. Let’s add the middle-aged people who work hard to care for their aging parents or the generous grandmother who finds time to raise her single daughter’s children. Or maybe it’s the minister of consolation who is ever present in the parish or the volunteer coach who wouldn’t dream of missing a team’s practice.
The institutional Church exists to help the living saints pursue their holiness. It’s important to have the support of the parish community with its many opportunities to serve others.
The Pope says holiness does not exist without prayer. We can pray in private and in public. It can be a quick moment of recited prayer or a half hour of silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Again, the parish church offers us these moments for prayer, whether it’s Sunday Mass or weekday visits.
Francis emphasizes that there is no cookie-cutter way to holiness. It’s not practicing this particular form of meditation or performing this one ministry. Holiness comes from following through on your own charisms or interests. You should feel fulfilled by being holy, not worn out or imposed upon. The Pope says that if you’re feeling angry about having to be holy, you’re not doing something right.
I love this quote from Francis: “The saints are not odd and aloof, unbearable because of their vanity, negativity and bitterness. The Apostles were not like that.”
The Apostles were simple working fishermen, probably a bit rough around the edges. Yet, they were entrusted with the greatest mission of all time. They were called to bring a vision of God to their fellow men and women. They put on no airs but went about their ways striving to best accomplish the mission that had been given to them.
This Holy Father says very simple things. They do not seem to be profound. But they are profound because they are simple.
It’s not always easy to do what we know to be the right thing. Cardinal DiNardo, head of the U.S. bishops, points out that Francis “describes how holiness comes through the daily struggles each of us face. In the ordinary course of each day, the Pope reminds us, ‘We need to recognize and combat our aggressive and selfish inclinations, and not let them take root.’ Yet, he says, this ‘battle is sweet, for it allows us to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives.’”