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For all the saints (including all the jerks)

A few years ago, Max Lindenman asked “What saints can’t you stand?” The responses are pretty interesting: There are some saints that no one likes, because they were unpleasant weirdos. Then there are some that inspire and enchant some people, while repelling and disgusting others. For me, St. John Vianney is one of these repellant types. Every time I hear a saint quote that makes me go, “WHAT?!?!” it turns out to be St. John Vianney. Oh, well—there are plenty of other saints.

When John Paul II was canonized, all of my favorite people were overjoyed that this holy man was being honored, but some Catholics were dubious, even snotty. Some simply don’t like him (how??), while others had serious doubts about his worthiness. It occurs to me that, when people react differently to the saints, there are three lessons to be drawn.

First is that even saints are a product of their times. Sincere spirituality takes different forms according to fads and culture—that’s just the human condition. And so when Padre Pio threw the lady out of his confessional and refused to speak to her until she stopped selling pants to women—well, he was a man of his times. At the time, selling women’s pants truly was a deliberate assault against gender distinction as it existed in that time. The woman in question probably was doing something wrong, just as a woman from the Middle Ages would have been doing something wrong by showing her bare knees: It’s not because knees or pants are intrinsically evil, but because it’s all about context and intention.

Now, it’s very possible that a Padre Pio alive in 2014 would be just as furious at a female pants-seller of 2014. And there’s our second lesson, which is: Saints can be jerks, too. Saints are not infallible; saint are not flawless. Saints sin. They may say or do t hings which are false, silly or harmful. If a priest today threw a woman out of confession for selling pants, he’d be sinning. He might still be a saint: He’d just have to go to confession for that particular sin.

And the third lesson we can learn is that this variety in saintliness is a feature, not a bug. When I adore Saint Fonofrius, but you think he’s a drippy bore, that’s part of God’s plan. It’s one of those “Catholic with a small c” ideas: The Church is here for everybody. While there are certain things that every single living soul is called to, there is always a matter of proportion. For some saints, generosity is their talent. For others, it’s great physical courage. For some saints, their entire lives tell a story of incredible singlemindedness and purity of intention; for others, God used them as the finest living example of someone who kept screwing up, repenting and trying again.

God is the light, and the saints are various types of lamps: Some produce a lovely glow; some produce a brilliant beam. Some make more heat; others are better for atmosphere. Some are for ballrooms, some are for bedsides, some are for keeping traffic orderly. The light inside is the same, but different styles show that light in different ways. A surgeon wouldn’t use a Tiffany lamp in the operating room—but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the Tiffany lamp. It’s just not the right one for that particular job.

So, the grumblers against John Paul II wish he had been a better administrator? Me too. But it wasn’t his particular talent. They wish John Paul II had been more canny, more suspicious of Maciel? Me too, and can you even imagine how much he must have wished it himself. But that wasn’t his particular talent.

When he trusted Maciel, it was a mistake committed because he was a product of his times (nearly everyone trusted Maciel; the Legionaries were apparently bearing wonderful fruit; and false accusations of pedophilia were a common tactic in his home country). It’s also possible that he committed this mistake because of personal flaw: He was Pope, and should have been more careful. (That is absolutely not for me to say—but this is a man who went to confession daily, so he clearly thought he was a sinner.)

But let’s not forget the third lesson: A saint is someone who does the most he can with his particular gifts from God. John Paul’s particular talents were an incredible strength and courage, a contagious joy, a spectacularly original mind, and an unprecedented ability to reach out and draw people to Christ. All of his works were works of love. And that’s why he was declared a saint: He used what God gave him to reflect his share of the light of Christ.

*****
[This post originally ran in a slightly different form in 2011.]

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