In my work in youth and young adult ministry I often hear that the goal of a good youth program is to “make saints.” This is an intimidating prospect not only for me (yikes!) but I think for the young people hearing it as well. This is because so often the vision of sainthood that we are presented with is a pristine sanitized version of the human person. Saints still had bad breath. Saints were people who maybe drank or ate too much from time to time (if you doubt this read any biography on John XXIII). Saints are people who like all people were annoying to live with at times and saints also have failed relationships. Saints are not perfect people! Saints are people that in the midst of these things that every human goes through remains in the love of Jesus as the Father has remained in him. (John 15:9) Saints are people that when faced with difficulty or bleak circumstances display the virtue of fortitude in remaining consistent on their path toward the kingdom of God. Saints are not necessarily heroic or extraordinary (though many of them are). Saints are ordinary people who in ordinary or extraordinary circumstances make choices that keep them always in deep union with God. If the goal of the church is to spread the good news by forming disciples who eventually become saints then we might say that the goal of the church is to take ordinary people with ordinary problems and teach them to remain steadfastly in God’s love and to spread that love in the world.
To profess faith in “the communion of saints” means that we believe that not only do final relationships of beatification exist between God and humanity but also that there are some people who have lived lives of such extraordinary holiness that those of us on this side of the grave (always moved by the Holy Spirit) can recognize this. To believe in the communion of saints is first and foremost an act of hope. We have deep and profound hope that those bathed in the love of Christ who accept this love are with God beyond time and space and praying for all of us in this life. This hope is not to be confused with superficial optimism that denies real suffering but is rather the virtue that allows us to have faith that death is not the final word on our lives.
I often pray to Mary Magdalene for intercession. I think this is because when I read the gospels I identify with her because she seems a misfit in her situation. Prescinding from the fact that so many Catholics STILL mistakenly think she was a prostitute; she seems an odd fit as a disciple and sometimes I feel that way as well. She is a woman. She is one of the only disciples mentioned who had the fortitude to follow Jesus to the cross and also one of the first witnesses to the resurrection and her own credibility as a disciple is not sufficient for the men to believe her. But when I pray to Mary Magdalene for intercession I consciously try not to imagine her as a perfect “saint.” I imagine her as a sincere person of faith in Jesus. She was a person who like any of us would have had character flaws and annoying habits and bad days. But it is her devotion to Jesus and her fortitude to follow him to the cross regardless of the pain that would have caused her or the risks she was taking in her own safety that makes her a saint, not the perfection of her personal habits.
To “roll” with the saints does not mean that we have to be perfect at all times and always say and do the right thing and always act with charity. To “roll” with the saints means that the total orientation of our lives must be pointed toward the love of God and this is visible in how we love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22) Finally, belief in the communion of saints is an act of deep and abiding hope in the possibility of an eternal relationship with God.
Katie O’Neill is a pastoral assistant for youth and young adults at St Pius X in Mountlake Terrace, WA. This post is also featured on Daily Theology.