Saints intrigue us. We recognize something special about them that seems to set them apart from us. They have achieved an excellence that we admire, but that we suppose we can never reach. So we honor the saints by mentally placing them on pedestals that distance them from us, believing them to be the exceptional and we the ordinary.

When we get to know the saints a little better, however, that imagined distance shrinks. Observing saints more closely reveals that they were ordinary people just like us.

I am inspired by seeing St. Teresa of Avila scarfing down a partridge instead of fasting and St. Lutgarde interrupting her Eucharistic devotion to get a snack. I am relieved to discover that St. Bertilla, with whom I share not only a name but a persistent problem with anger, once had to repent for cursing a young nun who crossed her.

Even saints who lived with Christ and personally experienced his heavenly invasion stayed earthbound. Only a week after Christ’s rising, for example, St. Peter got bored and said, “I’m going fishing,” and six other saints tagged along (see Jn 21:3).

Heavenly desire

What distinguishes saints from most people is their life purpose. Simply put, more than anything else, they wanted to be saints.

“May God keep us in his grace,” wrote 15-year-old St. Dominic Savio to a friend, “and help us to become saints.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux resolved to become a saint at age 3. St. Francis of Assisi announced his desire to become a saint at age 19.

And St. Ignatius of Loyola stated his intention in words that invite our imitation: “The saints were of the same frame as I. Why should I not do as they have done?” This compelling desire for sanctity motivated all the saints, and their resolve invited a divine touch.

But determination does not create saints. As the word saint indicates, only God makes saints. Saint comes from a Latin root that means “holy” or “reserved for God.”

The presence of the divine in human beings causes them to be holy and transforms them. Grace gives us all the potential to become saints like Teresa, Ignatius, Thérèse, Francis and Dominic Savio. If we don’t aim for it, we lose out. “The one sadness,” said Léon Bloy, “is not to be a saint.”

Recognizing saints

Of the millions of saints who have preceded us, the Catholic Church has formally identified some women and men to aid us on our journey. Over the centuries, it has in diverse ways recognized about 10,000 saints.

The early Church first recognized martyrs as saints. Christians began to remember the day of their death as their birthday into heaven, visit their tombs to ask for their intercession, write their stories and enroll their names on lists called martyrologies.

About the fourth century, when the persecutions subsided, the Church started to recognize women and men who had not been martyred, but who would have given their lives for Christ had they had the chance. For the next six centuries, holy virgins, monks, lay theologians, widows, priests and bishops had their names added to the lists of saints everywhere.

Today we call the Church’s way of making saints “canonization.” The term literally refers to adding a name to a “canon,” or an official list of saints. But the term has come to refer more broadly to the process used to verify a person’s reputation for holiness. Today, only the pope proclaims a saint after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Church’s official saint-making research group, completes a lengthy and rigorous examination of the person’s life.

Stages in the process

However, canonization evolved slowly. The first official canonization occurred in the 10th century, and only in the 12th century was the process of naming saints reserved to the pope. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V established a formal office in Rome to investigate the lives of candidates and conduct the saint-making process. The Church still uses that system today, although it has been much reformed and improved, especially in the last century.

Pope John Paul II made local bishops responsible for nominating candidates for sainthood. He charged the Congregation for Saints’ Causes to assure a candidate’s worthiness by rigorous study of his or her life, work and writings. Once they have made their determination, they send their recommendation on to the pope for his action.

Candidates for sainthood pass through different stages. Early on they are declared “Venerable,” meaning that they either had been martyred or had exercised Christian virtues to a heroic degree.

Then the candidate may be beatified and given the title “Blessed.” To be beatified, the Church requires one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession; however, no miracle is required for the beatification of a martyr. When the pope beatifies someone, he authorizes the limited public veneration of the saint within a diocese, religious order or a country.

Canonization is the final stage of the process and occurs when the pope decrees that a person has already entered eternal glory and that the saint may be venerated universally. Canonization calls for a second miracle after beatification, and the Church also requires a verified miracle for the canonization of a martyr.

Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has canonized about 800 saints. Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI canonized five new saints on Oct. 11, including St. Damien of Molokai and St. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Why we have saints

The Church gives us saints as exemplars, intercessors and patrons.

When a pope canonizes a saint, he identifies the person’s life message so that we may imitate it. For example, in 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized Rose Philippine Duchesne, a 19th-century French missionary to Native Americans. In the official decree, he recommended her “radical commitment to the poor and the outcast of society” as a “dynamic source of inspiration” and a “valid example for all” to follow. The Church expects us to familiarize ourselves with the saints and to discern wisdom for our lives from their words and actions.

Heavenly intercessors

The Church also gives us saints as intercessors and as patrons. We are encouraged to ask the saints to pray with us for our concerns and to invite them to protect and guide us on our journey. Intercession and patronage involve us personally with the saints that we believe now live in heaven with God.

From the earliest days, Christians have spoken about this Communion of Saints (see sidebar below), as we still do when we recite the Apostle’s Creed. We earthly saints are linked with heavenly saints, who constitute a vast, but invisible, sector of the Christian community.

The saints themselves expect to be doing the work of intercession once they get to heaven. For example, St. Dominic assured his friars that he could accomplish more for them after his death than he could in life. St. Thérèse of Lisieux promised to respond to requests by asking God to flood the world with little miracles, and thousands testify that she has kept her word.

The saint we turn to most often for intercession is Mary, who had enough influence with her Son at Cana to get him to adjust the timing of God’s plan (see Jn 2:4).

We still look to saints as patrons, but patronage for us has retreated considerably from its original meaning. In the early Church, a patron acted as a protector and a guide. For example, St. Paulinus of Nola believed that St. Felix, his patron, accompanied him through life, protecting him from dangers and ensuring his relationship with Christ.

Our selecting a saint’s name for a child or a teen’s choosing a saint’s name at the Sacrament of Confirmation is distantly patterned on this ideal of patronage, but we expect far less of the patron than we ought.

We should anticipate much more spiritual support from our invisible, but powerful, partners in the Communion of Saints.

Holiness for all

One night in the spring of 1939, Thomas Merton and poet Robert Lax, his Jewish friend, were walking along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Lax surprised Merton by asking out of the blue, “What do you want to be?” Merton, not wanting to appear shallow by saying “a writer” or “a philosophy teacher,” correctly regarded the question as spiritual. “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess I want to be a good Catholic.” 

Lax rejected this answer. “What you should say,” he told Merton, “is that you want to be a saint.”
“How do you expect me to become a saint?” Merton asked.

“By wanting to,” said Lax. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what he created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

Lax was right. God wants to make us all saints. Not that he intends that we should be formally canonized by the Catholic Church. But Scripture indicates that he always planned to sanctify us. For example, when Jesus described the scene of the final judgment he revealed that making saints was God’s purpose in creation. To some people he would say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). To “inherit the kingdom” meant receiving eternal life; “the foundation of the world” referred to the creation of the universe. Jesus was telling us that his Father decided to create the universe so he could bestow eternal life on human beings who desired it.

So don’t be too quick to latch on to Merton’s initial reaction, which was a version of, “Who, me? Be a saint? I could never be good enough.” That’s an excuse, not a reason. It’s the fruit of a false humility that could cause us to miss a divine opportunity. Nobody, not even great saints like Thérèse of Lisieux and Francis of Assisi, is good enough to become a saint. We must resist our inclination to regard saints as extraordinary human beings, made of better material than the rest of us.

Since 1997 I have read more than 350 lives of saints and can say with certainty that not one was good to begin with. All were ordinary people like you and me, who suffered with flaws, struggled against evil tendencies and stumbled into sin. What sets saints apart is not some preternatural excellence, but a decision to say yes to God’s call to sanctity. For example, St. Thérèse of Lisieux said she made a choice to be a saint when she was 3 years old. St. Francis of Assisi announced his intention to be a saint at age 19. God honored their decisions and made them saints. He wants to do the same for us, if we will only make the choice.

One big family (sidebar)

As Catholics celebrate the ancient feast of All Saints’ Day — the Church has been honoring its holy men and women on Nov. 1 since at least by the pontificate of Pope Gregory VII in the late 11th century — let’s take a look at how we are spiritually bound to our brothers and sisters in heaven and purgatory.

The Communion of the Saints — the spiritual union that exists among the saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory and the faithful living on earth (traditionally referred to as the Church triumphant, the Church suffering and the Church militant) — is such a vital Church teaching that it is the ninth article of the Apostles’ Creed. The teaching was also affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea, the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent.

The Second Vatican Council describes it as “the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of heaven or who are yet being purified after their death” (Lumen Gentium, No. 51).

Lumen Gentium also declares that “our community with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself. It is supremely fitting, therefore, that we love those friends and coheirs of Jesus Christ who are also our brothers and outstanding benefactors, and that we give due thanks to God for them, humbly invoking them, and having recourse to their prayers, their aid and help in obtaining from God through his Son, Jesus Christ, Our Lord, our only Redeemer and Savior, the benefits we need” (No. 50).

On All Saints’ Day 2005, Pope Benedict XVI underscored our connection with those who have gone before us, reminding believers it is “the reality of a family bound together by deep bonds of spiritual solidarity that unites the faithful departed to those who are pilgrims in the world. It is a mysterious but real bond, nourished by prayer and participation in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

“In the Mystical Body of Christ the souls of the faithful meet, overcoming the obstacle of death; they pray for one another, carrying out in charity an intimate exchange of gifts.”

 From "Voices of the Saints" by Bert Ghezzi, copyright 2000 by Bert Ghezzi. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Readers can order the recently revised "Voices of the Saints" by calling 1-800-621-1008 or visiting www.loyolapress.com  Bert Ghezzi works as an acquisitions editor for Our Sunday Visitor's book publishing division. Visit his website at www.bertghezzi.com