Holy but human: the saint and us

I’m thinking a lot about holiness these days. Perhaps it’s Pope Francis’s intention to canonize Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in April. (Although the world has long ago considered Good Pope John a Saint.)

But I think it is more the recent death of Nelson Mandela and his tongue in cheek definition of a saint as a “sinner who keeps on trying.” He suffered much for the cause of justice, and his unprecedented forgiveness of his white suppressors changed his country – and the world. That’s holiness in my book. There’s no need for a formal canonization.

Mother Theresa was another one. Rome has beatified her – a step on the bureaucratic road to canonization – but it didn’t have to. Her body was hardly cold in death when Hindus, Buddhists and Christians instinctively acknowledged a life rooted in service to her God and to the poorest of the poor. There was no need for her canonization either; the whole world had done that.

Perhaps in some distant century some Pope will recognize holiness outside his ancient church, canonizing Anne Frank, Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther, or Mahatma Gandhi. But it’s doesn’t matter. God’s people have long ago decided. Bureaucracies are always behind the curve. Canonization only matters to the legalists. Dorothy Day had it right when in her lifetime a follower referred to her as a saint. She quipped, “I hope I won’t be dismissed so easily.”

Wonders to behold, Rome is now thinking of canonizing Dorothy Day. She is an unlikely saint. She was addicted to cigarettes; she had an abortion and lived with her common-law lover as a young woman. That’s a saint for all of us, struggling with our own addictions and relationships.

In Day’s later years she lived a life of prayer, deep faith, heroic pacifism and life-long service to the poor. Along with Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker and its Houses of Hospitality. Day’s life, however, like ours was a mixture of shadows and light, of the good and the could-be-better.

What’s the lesson here for us? For you and me? Often our heroes, our saints, our icons are flawed, sometimes deeply flawed. Mandela’s life was very hard on his family and his marriage. His political compromises, some say, have left many South African blacks in poverty. I have already mentioned Day’s “sins.” Pope John Paul II was authoritarian, intolerant of dissent, and stubborn. Good Pope John ate too much; as the Italians say, “He had a heavy fork.” Yet we need them as models. Not because they were holy -in their own way they all were, but because they were mortals, with human faults and failings just like us.

That’s why we need them – and why we don’t need canonizations.

Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga. His columns once appeared regularly in the OBSERVER. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of his previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website www.danielcorourke.com/