We Catholics love our saints, don’t we? Our tradition is filled with stories of heroic men and women who have given their whole lives to the Lord.
We venerate martyrs like Stephen and Edith Stein, bishops like John Chrysostom and Charles Borromeo, nuns like Thérèse of Lisieux and Josephine Bakhita, and religious brothers like Francis of Assisi and André Bessette. We pray to St. Anthony when something has been lost and cannot be found. We call upon St. Christopher for a safe journey. Students might pray to St. Thomas Aquinas on the night before a major exam, and pregnant mothers might ask St. Gerard to pray for safe deliveries of their children. And we pray to Mary for everything.
By the way, did you know that there is also a patron saint for airline pilots (St. Joseph Cupertino, who levitated), a patron saint for funeral directors (St. Joseph of Arimathea, who buried Jesus), and a saint to pray to when you are afraid of snakes (St. Patrick, naturally)?
Of course, all of this attention on our saints is a very good thing. Still, we can be so focused on these heroes and legends of the past that we forget that there are saints all around us right now. We can begin to think that sainthood, even holiness in general, is far out of reach for everyday people like ourselves. But the truth is, anyone can become a saint. In fact, you may be one right now, and you don’t even know it.
To the “Holy Ones.” This may seem like a bold claim, but it only seems that way because we have placed the idea of sainthood on a pedestal. Scripture gives us a different view. Did you know that St. Paul often referred to his people as “holy ones,” which means “saints”? For instance, he opens his letters to the Ephesians and the Philippians by addressing “the holy ones” (Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1). And even to the Corinthians, a church filled with scandal, division, and sin, he wrote, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
Why did Paul go out of his way to stress holiness to the members of these churches? It wasn’t because he was trying to flatter them, and it wasn’t because he was careless with his words. No, Paul called them holy because he truly believed that they were holy—just as he would probably call most of us holy. So what was Paul’s basis for such confidence?
Baptized into Holiness. First, Paul understood how powerful and liberating the Sacrament of Baptism is. Over the course of his ministry, he saw countless people’s lives change dramatically as they gave their lives to Christ and were baptized. This led him to see that baptism brought a person from death to life (Romans 6:4). He began to understand baptism as a “bath of water” that cleanses us and sanctifies us—that is, it makes us holy (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 6:11). So Baptism plants in us the seed of God’s power to make us into saints. It enables us to do things we could not possibly do on our own. Without this powerful gift of God’s grace, we could never become holy.
Most of us were baptized as infants. We didn’t choose to be baptized. We don’t even remember it. We don’t know what our lives were like beforehand—because there was no “beforehand.” And that can make it hard to believe that we have been made holy, sanctified, by the Lord. But in God’s eyes, this is what has happened. You are already holy, even if you don’t see it in your life. You are already set apart as God’s own beloved child. He has claimed you, he has redeemed you, he has justified you, and he will not stop calling out to you and urging you to welcome him more deeply into your life.
Set Yourselves Apart. Of course, we can’t rely on our baptism alone to make us holy. We know that we commit sins—sometimes serious, mortal sins. Paul knew that as well. That’s why he told us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age” (Romans 12:2). Baptism may set us apart and mark us as God’s children, but we need to “put away” those parts of us that are still prone to sin and “put on” the new life Jesus has given to us (Ephesians 4:22, 24).
This is the other part of what it means to be holy—set yourself apart, because Christ has set you apart. We become holy as we live a different life. We become holy as we say yes to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and the commands of the Lord, just as we say no to the temptations to sin that are all around us. We become holy as we seek the Lord in prayer and ask him to write his love on our hearts. We become holy as we join our brothers and sisters at Mass and receive Jesus’ Body and Blood at Communion.
Paul called all the first Christians saints because he knew that holiness is not reserved for special, heroic believers. God wants holiness to be a normal part of our everyday lives. Every one of us can become like Jesus. Every one of us can grow in purity, innocence, mercy, and compassion.
A Consecrated Life. This call to holiness can seem extremely demanding, can’t it? Especially when we take an assessment of our current faith life. We know that we have very far to go before we reach the kind of holiness we want to see in our lives. We can think it’s impossible or that we are unworthy of Jesus’ love and his grace. We can think that we have to earn all of these gifts rather than receive them freely and humbly. And so we look at holiness as a distant, almost unattainable goal.
But that’s not how God looks at us. Of course we need to be on guard against temptation. Of course we need to be aware of our sins, looking out for hints of pride. But if we focus only on the things we have yet to do, we risk losing sight of the progress we have already made. We risk forgetting that holiness doesn’t mean perfection; it means being set apart for God. We risk forgetting how very similar we are to the first Christians. For example:
• Do you go to Mass on Sundays? You are setting yourself apart to spend time with Jesus and to receive his Body and Blood.
• Do you try to carve out time for prayer and adoration? You are setting yourself apart from other tasks, even important tasks, that you could be doing.
• Do you try to guard your tongue against gossip or harsh speech? You are setting yourself apart from all the competition and rivalry, all the divisive elements in the world.
• Do you examine your conscience and feel guilty when you know you have sinned? You are setting yourself apart from the all-too-common tendency to minimize sin and its effects.
• Do you go to Confession? You are setting yourself apart from that part of you that says you don’t have to take responsibility for your sins.
• Do you try to raise your children or grandchildren in the faith? You are setting your family apart to become a miniature church, a witness to God’s love.
The list can go on and on. And for each one of us, there are individual, unique ways that we set ourselves apart, ways that we consecrate ourselves to the Lord. We probably don’t even recognize all of them, but we do them nonetheless—and God blesses us for them.
Already and Not Yet. Never forget that you are already part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” a people set apart for God (1 Peter 2:9). At the same time, never forget that you still have a long way to go to attain the holiness that your heart desires. None of us have reached our heavenly home yet. So let’s keep asking the Lord to sanctify us with his grace, even as we do everything we can to live in the holiness that he has called us to.