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What being a saint does not mean

In his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), Pope Francis speaks simply and concretely about the type of holiness that all baptized Christians are called to in their daily lives. Even so, within this good desire for holiness, many misconceptions arise – even among Catholic groups – making holiness seem like a privileged state reserved only for an exclusive group of believers.

To shed light on some of these misconceptions, here are a few insights gleamed from the pope’s exhortation about what holiness is not, through which he seeks to remind us of the simplicity of the Gospel.

Believing that the lives of the saints were perfect. They “amid their faults and failings… proved pleasing to the Lord,” (no. 3). It is precisely in their weaknesses and shortcomings that the saints recognize their limitations and ask the Lord for help and grace.

Desiring to have someone else’s qualities. Many Christians exhaust themselves trying to imitate certain stereotypes or qualities “not meant for them” (no. 11), instead of identifying their own gifts, seeing how through them they can glorify God and find their worth in being God’s children, not in their human capacities.

Dedicating long hours to prayer. While some people have a vocation to an intense life of prayer, like contemplative religious, “We are called to be holy by living our lived with live and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (no. 14), the Pope says.

Trying to imitate the smallest details in the lives of the saints. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is… their entire journey of growth in holiness,” (no. 22). The details can pertain to a specific time, a cultural situation or a type of personality.

Believing a saint has answers to all questions. Faith is a mystery enlightened by the natural light of reason. It is, however, prideful to absolutize one’s own theories and force others to submit to that way of thinking (no. 39). Those who act in this manner may as well be a “false prophet” (no. 41). Saints can have doubts but have a great faith in God which they do not entirely understand. Faith formation is important but wanting to know it all and consider the rest as the “ignorant masses” is a temptation we should all avoid (no. 45).

Believing that holiness consists in mere human works. This vice derives from Pelagianism, a heresy that downplays the role of grace (no. 54). Groups and people who fall into this mentality usually have “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages” (no. 57). It’s a temptation to boast “about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programs of self-help and personal fulfilment.” Instead, it’s important to let oneself “be led by the Holy Spirit in the way of love.”

Disregarding painful situations. “Whatever weariness and pain we may experience in living the commandment of love and following the way of justice, the cross remains the source of our growth and sanctification” (no. 92). Christians who bypass the cross many times look for security “in success, vain pleasures, possessions, power over others or social status” (no. 121).

Thinking everything around me will be good. A saint accepts those difficulties he or she cannot change. It becomes necessary to be wary of “the thirst for power and worldly interests, [which] often stands in our way” (no. 91).

Thinking Christianity is simply a charity business. While the Church and Christians must consider the missionary and charitable dimensions of the faith, they cannot “separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord” (no. 100). The Pope invites us to look at some saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Calcutta and St. Vincent de Paul, to whom “mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel in no way detracted from their passionate and effective commitment to their neighbors; quite the opposite” (no. 100).

Fleeing to a safe place. Saints flee from occasions of sin but never seeks to take refuge in human securities. When this happens, the person can fall into temptations of “individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations” (no. 134). We must remember that instead. God “takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning” (no. 135).

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