BustedHalo: What do you think the saints have to offer in particular to people in their 20’s and 30’s? Why should younger generations care about the saints at all? What can we find in the stories of the lives of the saints that we wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere?
Rev. Jim Martin: They are powerful witnesses of faith who lived in often incredibly difficult situations. Anyone today who is facing difficulty in their faith or who struggles along their journey can find companionship in these stories. In most of the saints’ lives, the most interesting parts are when they are very young. You have St. Francis casting off his cloak in the town square when he is a young man; you have Therese of Lisieux entering a Carmelite monastery at 15; and you have Aloysius Gonzaga setting aside a family fortune and entering the Jesuits at age 18. These are people who, as young men and women, really made a decision to follow Christ in a radical way. That’s very appealing to young adults.
Also people are looking for authentic witnesses to the gospel. Well that’s what the saints are. Young people are also looking for community, and we have this communion of saints that goes largely unnoticed by a lot of young Catholics because they tend to associate devotion to the saints only with their grandparents or great grandparents. That’s because there’s a lot of boring statuary and banal stained glass windows out there that help to eradicate these incredibly vibrant and often very subversive lives. These people lived lives that were a distinct threat to the status quo.
BH: Subversive? Can you say more about that?
JM: Most of these saints were very threatening to the church at the time when they first came onto the scene. Dorothy Day had a lot of trouble with the church, and Ignatius of Loyola was thrown into jail by the Inquisition. People completely disbelieved Bernadette Soubirous when she told people about the apparition at Lourdes, and Thomas Aquinas was questioned about his writing. These people are models of radical Christianity.
So much of what’s been going on in the religious right is the taming of Christianity; people are making it into nothing more than a support system for political views, whereas the life of Jesus shows us, as Dorothy Day said, that Christianity is not only about comforting the afflicted but also afflicting the comfortable. No one shows that better than the saints.
BH: How else were the saints’ lives subversive?
JM: For people who are struggling with the Church, the saints show us how to be persistent. Thomas Merton, who wrote a book during the Cold War that took an anti-war stance, was silenced by his Trappist superiors, and his book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was not published until more than forty years later. Peace and war issues were not seen, in the early 1960’s, as something Trappists should be talking about. About his book and the silencing, Merton wrote, “Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet.”
Dorothy Day, quoting 20th century theologian Romano Guardini, once said “the church is the cross on which Christ is crucified.” Here are these people who show us that you can have difficulties with the institutional church and still be a good Catholic. In this post-sex-abuse era, that’s a very important message for people to hear: having disputes or difficulties with the church, or even with parts of church teaching, are part of the lives of the saints.
BH: How can someone begin to adopt saints as role models in their own life, when many of these people lived in cultures and times so different from our own?
JM: For me, it’s finding saints you’re naturally attracted to; finding saints whose lives speak to you. Not everyone is going to be attracted to Joan of Arc. In fact a lot of people find her very off-putting because she was a warrior, which confuses a lot of people. It’s often in a particular aspect of their lives that a saint speaks to us; for me it’s not her military successes or even her visions. Frankly, I’m not a soldier and I don’t have visions.
To me, it’s Joan’s faithfulness and fidelity to what she believed, even in the face of persecution by the church, even in the face of rejection by her former friends. Even in the face of physical pain, she still remained faithful to that which she believes. She appeals to me in a particular way that may not appeal to other people. And that is a real hallmark of the saints—there are so many, it’s kind of hard not to find somebody whose life you like. To use an image from St. Paul, they’re runners ahead of us in the race, who urge us on and give us encouragement by their lives.
Also, we can see that saints in general sometimes had a hard time with things, got discouraged, got sad, and got discouraged even with the church, and that was part of the human journey. I find that very encouraging.
With someone like Merton, you see see all the flaws: his pride, his patience, his anger. You can step back and say he was still holy. I think that’s a very encouraging thought because that’s the way God sees all of us.
BH: I was surprised to learn from reading about Mother Teresa in your book that for much of her adult life she didn’t feel very close to God. That’s interesting because I think many of us look at her life, and think, “Well of course she can do all that, because she’s Mother Teresa.” It seems, after reading your book, that in getting to know the saints you’ve encountered lots of surprises like that.
JM: Real life is always more interesting than the legend, and embedded in the saints’ lives are these wild stories! The legend of Mother Teresa began to take hold even in her lifetime, and the legend was not only that she was holy, but that she was perfect, that she never had to struggle spiritually, because of course, she’s Mother Teresa. But when you read her letters to her spiritual director, you find these lines about years and years of doubt and spiritual darkness, and it’s so striking. She writes: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, and of God not really existing.” Those are very powerful lines, and this is not something she says lightly. Eventually Mother Teresa came to see this sense of absence as one way God might have been inviting her to share in the life of poor, who feel so abandoned, and to share in the life of Christ who was abandoned on the cross. To think that she struggled with that for decades, as some say she did, and that she still did the kind of work she did, is incredibly encouraging, and I find that nothing makes her example more appealing than that, even more than her work with the poor.