Don’t despair. God can make saints out of sinners … and wants to.
Full disclosure: the title of this essay comes from an All Saints Day homily I heard in Warsaw in 2003. The fact that I remember it 17 years later tells me it’s an insight worth sharing.
Once upon a time, Catholics read about the saints. Publishers put out books for children and adults that presented great heroes of the faith. Compendiums like Father Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints were classic and standard reading in many English-speaking Catholic households. In recent years, I’ve tried to introduce in these blogs the writings of Ven. Tomás Morales, a modern Spanish Jesuit who founded two secular institutes. Among Morales’ written works is his 12-volume Semblanzas de Testigos de Cristo Para Las Nuevos Tiempos (Portraits of Witnesses to Christ for New Times”), a collection of lives of the saints, curated by him to highlight their spiritual witness for contemporary people.
Modern American discourse focuses a lot on “diversity” and “inclusion.” The Church is inclusive, but her history shows us many diverse paths to heaven. That’s why St. John Paul II was so intent on canonizing contemporary saints: he wanted to showcase contemporary models of holiness. One reason we focus on the lives of the saints is to learn how heaven can be won amidst the varied circumstances of human life. Another, of course, is to solicit the saints’ intercessions. They are not just dead models, but living companions.
The point, however, is that each one has his own biography, his own path to heaven.
Those biographies have not always been lovely. As a friend, Father Warren Kinne once put it while preaching about Sts. Peter and Paul, “both of those guys had histories.” St. Peter was a tempestuous coward. St. Paul was at least an accomplice to murder, while also ready to put Damascus’ Christians “to the sword.”
Sts. Pelagia and Mary of Egypt had checkered sexual pasts. St. Augustine had an illegitimate child. St. Dismas was a thief subjected to capital punishment. Ven. Matt Talbot was an alcoholic. St. Matthew was a tax collector which, in the way that profession was carried on in first century Israel, likely also meant he was a thief.
And they are all saints.
What should we conclude from this? One is not to despair: God can make silk purses out of sow’s ears and saints out of sinners … and wants to. The only condition is that we let him. “Though your sins be like scarlet …” (Isaiah 1:18).
Another is to correct our current “cancel” culture. America is beset today by a peculiar and toxic mixture of Puritanism and nihilism, epitomized by our iconoclasm of statues, our effacing of building names, and a wholesale repudiation of history seemingly grounded in a callow and juvenile surprise that national heroes sometimes had clay feet.
I am not arguing that Washington, Jefferson, Lee, Roosevelt et al. were saints (although I hope they have earned the beatific vision) but challenging the jejune thought that we can only honor and emulate the perfect. If that criterion was true, we’d have nobody to imitate. Everybody is a sinner.
That said, the theology of the saints makes clear that by cooperating with God’s grace, man can be more than he can by himself. He can do that not by pretending that his sinfulness was not there but by overcoming it through God’s grace. A man becomes a saint not by denying his biography but by acknowledging it, taking it in hand, and going forward. A saint is someone unafraid of his biography.
At the same time, the Solemnity of All Saints should ask us to think about the biography we are writing. Do we think about it?
In academics, many professors submits an annual evaluation of what they’ve done for the year: classes taught, writings published, public service provided, committee work accomplished. You do a lot of work during the year that produces tons and tons of paper, but you need to summarize it in a few sentences.
The same is true of other professions. No matter how intense your year has been, many jobs expect you and your supervisor to list your achievements on behalf of the institutional mission and your demonstrated potential for promotion in one or two pages. As one boss put it, “you shouldn’t be able to list everything you did in the past year. If you can, you haven’t done enough.”
Open an encyclopedia. The achievements of many great figures over a lifetime of 70 or 80 years are condensed in a quarter of a page, half a page for the superheroes. It’s November. Go to a cemetery. The average person’s biography is his name, date of birth and date of death. The luckier might get something like “beloved husband and father,” “beloved wife and mother.”
Even that biography is subject to erosion. In the Armenian cathedral in L’viv, Ukraine, various tombstones line the monastic gangway. Every day, as the monks go to prayer, their feet slowly wipe away the writing on those stones so that, like the Tomb of the American Unknown Soul, one day those souls “will be known only to God.”
God, however, is a better keeper of biographies. A God who counts not only His People (whom no man “can count, of every nation, race, people, and tongue” – Revelation 7:9) but also numbers the hairs of their heads (Luke 12:7) is also a God who does not forgot about a cup of cold water given on a hot day to a thirsty brother or sister (Matthew 10:42). His biographies include food to the hungry, clothes to the needy, burial to the dead, counsel to the doubtful, instruction to the ignorant, admonishment to evildoers, and a smile to the despairing — along with noting the clay feet.
Our judgment at death, the particular judgment, is in essence nothing more than a biographical statement. The best Catholic theology recognizes that the judgment is not so much God judging us as we judging ourselves. Under the light of his grace, the soul simply acknowledges who he has made himself into, who he is — an autobiography that God does not so much impose as ratify.
Should we not, then, regularly examine the biography we are writing? Should we not regularly strip away the excuses that try to pretend the crooked writing is straight, that my “responsibility” allows me to leave this world a bloodier, more evil place when I could have made it better?
Yes, judgment is a biographical statement. The difference is he is a God not interested in cancellation but salvation, not by pretending evil does not exist but by letting us earn our spurs by overcoming evil by his grace. But we don’t earn those spurs by surrender or equivocation, but by single-minded struggle.
It’s not a rose garden (and even rose gardens have thorns). But it’s why a saint is not afraid of his biography.