Memento Mori: It’s to Die For

“Christians are made, not born.” —Tertullian

This fresco at the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco was painted in 1228 or 1229 and is the oldest surviving depiction of St. Francis of Assisi
This fresco at the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco was painted in 1228 or 1229 and is the oldest surviving depiction of St. Francis of Assisi (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One is holy not because of the great things one has accomplished, but rather, one accomplishes great things because one is holy. And one is holy only because of God's grace.

If this is true, then it makes sense that these people are recognized either as mystics during life or as saints after they die. If certain individuals are blessed with God's gracious presence in life, it follows they will be similarly blessed in the afterlife.

Along with this idea came the belief in praying to dead people who exhibited holiness in life. The Catholic Church has canonized more than 10,000 saints over the past two millennia but when one includes all of the ancient Church’s martyrs, the beati, venerable, Servants of God and others currently under consideration, the number is exponentially higher. For example, at least 8,000 Catholics were killed in Korea because of their faith during the 19th century though only 103 of whom have been canonized thus far. In 1603, a particularly fierce persecution in Japan resulted in the deaths of more than tens of thousands of Christians out of a population of 400,000. In 2008, 188 of them were beatified.

St. Francis of Assisi holds the record for the fastest canonization in Church history; a lightning-speed three years. Bl. John Don Scotus, one of my favorite beati, has been left on the back burner for nearly 700 years for want of a verifiable miracle.

Only the pope has the authority to recognize someone as a saint. Scientists, medical researchers and physicians are an integral and important part of the process but, at best, they can only designate a phenomenon as being beyond the ability of contemporary science to explain. This is a miracle — if something was easily explainable, it wouldn't serve to impress anyone.

Some atheists have argued that if the requirement is merely “contemporary science” then it follows that all previous miracles were not miracles at all but merely phenomena that wasn't completely understood. Logically, this doesn't follow at all. This is a very anti-intellectual, illogical and unscientific way of looking at any phenomena, let alone possibly miraculous ones. For all any atheist knows, God is behind every phenomenon in the world.

The point is not if a certain phenomenon is explicable by science. The more important consideration is its timing. That is, that it was done as a direct result of someone asking God, by the intercession of a saint, for such an event. If the atheist argument is correct, then it follows that all scientific observations and their accompany theories and paradigms aren't actually science as they might be disapproved by more research at some future time. Miracles, like all scientifically observed phenomena, can only be interpreted by the present sum of accumulated knowledge and logical reasoning not put off to some future nonexistent time where we may or may not have better or more in-depth knowledge. I enjoy pointing out to fundamentalist atheists that they must have a great deal of faith in science if they can believe, without any evidence, that there lies a time in the unspecified future, when all knowledge will be revealed to them.

The Bible gives this definition of faith:

To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1)

Among many Protestant traditions, any follower of Christ is considered a saint and is supposedly assured a place in Heaven. I've always disagreed with this kind of predestination theology and automatic canonization process. If there was any validity to it, it would invalidate an enormous percentage of the Gospels that asks Christians to care for the poor, the ministry toward which Christ dedicated a great deal of his time and energy. This particular passage stands out:

My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don't have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, "God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!"―if you don't give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (James 2:14-17)

Paul is particularly clear in this regard also:

I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains―but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have and even give up my body to be burned―but if I have no love, this does me no good. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Christianity is never meant to be a theoretical construct. It’s one of the reasons I have such great respect for Legatus and the Knights of Malta. Even the richest and socially best-connected Christians are required to assist the poor and underprivileged in as close and as meaningful way as possible.

Christians are required to go to Heaven. Christians are required to be saints. Christians are required to bring Christ into this world. Sainthood is not some far-off, quaint idea of a bunch of pale, socially-inept people locked up in a monastery. A quick survey of Christian saints will disabuse even the most bigoted person of this silly notion. A Christian saint is someone who has oriented himself toward Christ in as perfect a manner as is humanly possible, and this rarely involves becoming a recluse. In fact, Christian duty demands being a part of this world in order to address its injustices and inequalities. Christians are required to be examples of God's inexpressible and unfathomable love even in the worst possible situations.