Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” ― Léon Bloy
I grew up being quite perplexed by the saints. They seemed like spiritual superheroes. Well, that is true. But like the superheroes you find, Batman and Superman – or even Jason Bourne for that matter – it’s wonderful reading a story like that but finally, the fantasy ends when the story ends. You can be excited about them, but you can never become them. The saints seemed like that. They did extreme penances, fought with the devil (some quite literally), they served the poor in wonderful ways, some worked all kinds of miracles. They all seemed to suffer a great deal. It didn’t seem like these were people I could imitate in any way. All they seemed to do to me was look accusingly at me from above that I was not good enough, like them. Plus, given their single minded pursuit of holiness, won’t your life be quite boring, even if it didn’t involve suffering?
This month, we obtained a new saint – or rather, blessed – Carlo Acutis. His beatification electrified the internet. Even the secular media ran articles on him, as the first millennial to be beatified. It was apt – he was proclaimed patron saint of the Internet. He is Italian, from Milan, but he was born and baptised in London: at the Servite Church, in Fulham. This was very much home territory for those of us who trained at the Allen Hall Seminary, only a few minutes’ walk to this Church. His body lies now in Assisi. He is wearing a pair of Nike trainers and his favourite jumper. He was very much an ordinary teenager, who would have walked the streets of London or Milan. He loved playing videogames on his PlayStation II. He taught himself to code at a young age and developed a website (here). He loved watching action films, loved animals (had four dogs and two cats as pets!). But he was also marked from an early age, by deep love for Christ and the Eucharist. He begged the parish priest to make his first communion earlier than the normal age. he would spend time before the blessed Sacrament and his website was one cataloguing Eucharistic miracle around the world. This was, again, quite remarkable – his family was not particularly devout, going to Church only a few times a year. Like the multitude of saints, he had a love for the poor. He was always sensitive in noting when his friends were distressed and reaching out to them. He was gentle but fearless in the defence of his faith and prolife beliefs. He was also fearless in the face of death. He prophesied that he would die early and the way he would die. He contracted leukaemia and offered his sufferings for the Church and particularly for the Holy Father, Benedict at the time. He was peaceful in his death. He said “I am happy to die because I have lived my life without wasting a minute on those things which do not please God.” Incredible.
Today is the feast of All Saints. Today, we remember and celebrate, not just the lives of the canonised saints, like Carlo, but also all those saints we do not know about – only known to God. They will be unveiled in heaven, when we, please God reach there. These multitude of saints show us something hugely important: that being a saint is for everyone. Recovery of this truth, the universal call to holiness was one of the key teachings of Vatican II. Holiness, is the ordinary call for everyday Christians, whatever their state of life or duties in it may be.
God sometimes sovereignly reaches into the life of a person and so to speak, sets them early on, in the path of sanctity. Their sanctity was a gift; it was a gift for them, but it was also a gift for the world, for us. Carlo’s life was extraordinary but it simply illustrates the power of grace in someone’s life. The saints stand as an example for us, that this is what holiness looks like for our everyday life, and even more, that the end of holiness is joy. Carlo and the multitude of saints show that there is no one way to being a saint. So, how does one become a saint? Aquinas had a very simple answer to this same question asked by his sister: ‘by desiring it’. You don’t start by copying exactly what they did. That might work in limited cases, but not usually. If you want to become rich, you don’t do that by finding out what stock Warren Buffet has invested in and doing the same. You might have some success – you might also lose everything. Because you have no idea why he is investing in what he does. To become rich like him, you would have to capture something of his vision, of how he understands the workings of the market and his instincts developed over a lifetime. Similarly, to become a saint, you need to desire what they desired. It comes through capturing their vision of the world, God and themselves. That vision, that key, is what is presented to us in the gospel.
When it says, “Blessed are the pure of heart”: the deepest sense of this purity is integrity. Your heart is not torn apart by rival desires; one moment you want this thing, the next you want another. To one who is pure of heart, their life, is organised around one desire. That one desire for the saints, was the will of God. Everything else was secondary. To us, as moderns, who value our own autonomy so much, the thought of following another’s will – even God – can seem terrifying. But the gospels and the lives of such saints, show us that this is false. The end, as the Beatitudes promise, is happiness. The will of God is our good, where we can be all that we were created to be. Carlo used to say, “Our goal must be infinite, not the finite. The infinite is our homeland. Heaven has been waiting for us forever.”
When we don’t organise our life around God’s will, we will pursue all kinds of finite goods, be it fame or fortune or pleasure or anything else. Our life loses coherence, as our our hearts are moved by the latest fads, by one person, then another. They leave us exhausted and miserable. While insisting on our freedom, we simply become copies of another – something, again, Carlo used to say: “All are born with their own originality, but many die as photocopies”. But to the one who is given to God’s will, the other beatitudes flower in them as well. Carlo was merciful, sensitive to his friends in distress. He defended his friends who were bullied – those who hunger for righteousness – because of the inspiration he had. The beatitudes found their own expression in his life.
Our lives are different. I’m a priest. You might be a wife, a mother; you might be working as a policeman, nurse, sportsperson or anything else. The opportunities will be different. But the truths and promises of the gospel are the same. The saints show us that these promises are true. This grace, so clearly seen in Carlo’s life, is there for us as well. And the only real tragedy in life is not becoming a saint.