With the imminent beatification of Pope John Paul II and the recent beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta many are asking “what does it mean to be a saint? Does a person have to live a perfect and sinless life to become a saint?”
I do not intend to address the formal canonical process leading to canonization. I suspect there will be a number of such articles in the coming weeks. What I want to stress is that people like Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa were normal human beings with all the strengths and weaknesses that are part of the human condition. They made mistakes, they made errors in judgment, and they became frustrated and lost their temper at times. What is important is that they didn’t give up on God.
Like each of us they were called to discipleship, to follow Jesus, to seek to imitate him so closely that they might say with St. Paul, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), for that is the goal of discipleship. However, human nature being what it is saints find themselves also saying, as St. Paul did, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Rom 7:15)
The Church uses the term “heroic virtue,” which could be defined as constantly seeking to imitate Jesus, gladly, even in the face of internal and external opposition, often at a considerable personal sacrifice. That means it is not easy and includes a lot of forgiving and being forgiven.
It also means that there are many out there who demonstrate heroic virtue in their lives but will never be formally recognized as venerable or blessed or as saints. They are the saints of Dallas or Plano or Waxahachie. Their road to sainthood is not on the streets of Calcutta or in the Vatican, but in the office, in the classroom, in the factory or in the kitchen.
This in no way takes away from Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa. It means that saintliness does not preclude human weaknesses. It does mean not giving up on God, knowing that we are never abandoned by God, never without the Divine presence, never without the grace of the Holy Spirit.
People do not set out to be saints, they become disciples of Jesus.