What Is The Real Meaning of a Saint?

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A week ago, my wife and I flew home from a trip to Italy. The most common question asked upon our return was about our experience at the canonization ceremony of John XXIII and John Paul II. Our experience was the same as most of you … we watched it on TV, in our case from the Rome airport as we awaited our flight to Boston.

At the risk of offending those devoted to these two former popes, I found the entire process and analysis of this special canonization somewhat frustrating. The fact that the process and rules for determining “saints” have been repeatedly adjusted diminishes the validity for me. This was no more evident than during the tenure of Pope John Paul II who proclaimed 482 saints, more than in the previous 600 years combined. In the case of these two most recent saints, both time limits and evidence of miracles were waived and redefined to allow this process to go forward because of public demand (“santo subito”). Apparently, public demand works better on the naming of saints than the modification of policies that exclude too many people from the Church.

The analysis recently related to Pope Francis’ decision focused mostly on these canonizations as being more political than spiritual. Many argued that by simultaneously canonizing both the person credited with initiating Vatican II and the person credited with helping to bring the downfall of communism and the expansion of the Church’s popularity, Pope Francis provided graphic evidence of the breadth of the Church both in terms of its more liberal and conservative wings. But couldn’t this have been accomplished through a speech? An encyclical? Visits to countries and communities reflecting the breadth of the world and the various perspectives?

I must admit that I have always had mixed feelings about Pope John Paul II. While I respected his commitment to freedom and his charismatic leadership to which so many responded, his failures related to the scandals in the Church and his arch conservative views toward the roles of women and the laity were repeatedly disappointing.

While Pope John XXIII lead the Church while I was a young child, my appreciation of his vision and leadership relates to my continued respect for and belief in the teachings of Vatican II. The Vatican II documents describe the Church I love and the faith I cherish. Without Vatican II, I would never have had the opportunity to serve the Church as a lay leader for the past 40+ years.

But what is the real meaning of a saint? If there is no need to provide evidence of miracles and no need for a waiting period, then it seems a saint is best described as someone who follows Jesus Christ and lives to the best of her or his ability according to the teachings of the Gospel.

And if John Paul II and John XXIII are saints, then so are the countless unknown faithful who begin each day in prayer living lives of service to the Common Good. And if we are all sinners as Pope Francis reminds us, then saints include all of us who struggle to live up to the model of the Gospel each and every day.

For me, the saints in my life are people who provide me with inspiration because of their values, their beliefs, their lives. When I pray for guidance, I reflect on the people who helped shape my life and continue to play a role in who I am, what I do and what I believe. They are models of discipleship … of people who journeyed on their walk of faith throughout their lives.

If millions of people have increased faith because of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II ,,, and if this faith translates into a deeper commitment to gospel values and serving the Common Good, that’s great. But when I get up in the morning and begin with prayer, I will continue to reflect on the saints in my life.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


  • Guest
    Gary Thursday, 15 May 2014

    Thoughtful and insightful remarks. I enjoyed reading it.

    - a Mathematics major at Georgian Court University in NJ

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