Archbishop Sample: ‘The Saints Are People Just Like Us’
Shepherd reflects on ‘first vocation,’ heavenly friends
Archbishop Alexander Sample enjoys discussing vocational discernment and the universal call to holiness. The Register spoke with him in connection with the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Salem, Oregon, this past June.
Your Excellency, I once watched a short message that you gave to youth who are discerning a vocation. You referenced the words of St. John Paul II, “Do not be afraid.”
I think it starts with the universal vocation that we all have, which is the call to holiness. The universal call to holiness is our primary vocation: We are all called to become saints. We are truly called to holiness — and that’s not just for popes, bishops, priests, religious; it’s for every baptized person. In Novo Millenio Ineunte, St. John Paul II says again that to ask to be baptized is to ask to be holy.
By virtue of our baptism, we are called to holiness, and thus it is the first vocation that is ours.
Within that universal vocation, however, each of us has our own personal vocation, which God has created us for. I think it is very important for us, especially young people, to reflect on that. We spend a lot of time asking young people, “What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do with your life?” That’s really the wrong question. The question is, “What do you think God made you for? What do you think God created you to do with your life? What is he calling you to do with your life?” God has a plan for each of us. None of us is an accident. Every individual created by God has a unique vocation, and God has a plan for each of our lives. We are not some random beings wandering around trying to figure out life and what we are supposed to do with life. God already has that plan for us.
Once we realize “I have been in the heart and mind of God from all eternity. God has always loved me, long before he said, ‘Let there be light.’ He knew me already because he is eternal and all-knowing. I am known and loved by God, God has a plan for me,” then I have to discover how I am to live out my life in Christ. Whatever it might be — it could be marriage and family; it could be a vocation to the priesthood or some form of consecrated life — it is in that that I will find my true fulfillment and happiness, the true joy that God intends for me in this world and, of course, in the next, as well. Remember, Christ said: “Whoever gives up father, mother, brothers, sisters, lands, everything, for the sake of the Kingdom” receives a hundredfold in this world and, together with persecutions, life eternal.
To give ourselves freely to God in whatever vocation he calls us to — and that may be the priesthood or consecrated life — the total gift of self is what is truly going to free us to serve God with our whole heart, mind and soul. It is that which will give us true joy and peace and even happiness in this world. A vocation really is the particular way we love God. ...
How have you experienced this truth in your own vocation? A big question, I know.
I just celebrated the 28th year of my priestly ordination. There has never, never been a time where I regretted the choice I had made to responding to God’s call for me to be a priest. I had a master’s degree in engineering — I could have had a happy and prosperous career — yet I can’t imagine being as happy as I have been as a priest. Not that there have not been struggles and ups and downs — but there is in every vocation! Marriage has ups and downs; religious life also! But I cannot imagine finding the same joy that I have in my priesthood and as bishop that I would have had I not chosen the vocation God created me for. So that is why we say “don’t be afraid” to give yourself. Even the gift of celibacy frees you, as the Church says, to serve God with an undivided heart, to lay down your life for your spouse, which is the Church.
What if someone fails to respond to a vocation from God?
If we miss our vocational call, and we don’t respond to what God created us to do, it is not that we won’t be able to have happiness and fulfilment in life, but it will never be what God intended for us. So this idea which St. John Paul put forth of “Do not be afraid,” do not be afraid to open the doors of your heart to Christ, don’t be afraid to give yourself completely to him ... you will know a joy and a peace that you cannot even imagine.
How must we view the saints so that we don’t write them off as impossibly holy people who have nothing to do with us?
We already spoke about how St. John Paul II clearly says that to ask to be baptized is to ask to become holy. Baptism commits us to holiness, to seek God with our whole strength, to imitate Christ in our lives. This is completely attainable. The saints are not superhuman creatures — they are men and women just like those [of us] today.
Some of the saints, as you know, had the special grace from childhood of being holy all their lives. Think of someone like St. Aloysius Gonzaga — how remarkable! By the age of 23, he was dead; by the age of 7, he was making commitments to Christ in prayer! I thought about that on his feast day: He died at the same age that I finally answered the call to the priesthood, kind of as a late starter! So we get people like that who have this special grace of being holy their whole lives. But then we get saints who were great sinners until their conversion. One of the Church’s great saints is St. Augustine of Hippo, confessor and doctor of the Church — well, he lived quite a dissolute life before he embraced Christ and was baptized.
We can all relate to the saints because they are people just like us. They are born into circumstances not unlike our own. ...
But what makes one human being achieve the heights of holiness in their life and another not?
The saint is one who fully embraces his life in Christ; he realizes that his life is not his own, that it belongs to God: I have been purchased at a great price, and my whole life must be given over to God. I must serve the Lord with my life, with all my being.
That does not mean abandoning the duties of our lives; it means embracing the ordinary, everyday duties of our lives in a new way, where we see the will of God and his providence being played out every day — even to embrace the crosses and sufferings with joy. Those are the saints that really get to the bottom of it: when they can see in the sufferings of their lives the grace and love of Christ.
We can’t turn the saints into plaster statues we have in the church which look so pious! They were real flesh-and-blood human beings like us. Look at some of our contemporary saints: St. John Paul II was an ordinary kid, but he gave his life completely to God. It was through his surrender to God that God could enter in and work in him. God offers the grace, and we often don’t open ourselves to it through prayer, through regular celebration of the sacraments — of course Holy Mass, but also confession, regularly, not once or twice a year, but (let’s say) monthly.
Saints don’t always become saints because they embark on some great adventure or some new initiative for the Church or start some special apostolate. A lot of saints became saints by embracing the ordinary circumstances of their lives — the little way of St. Thérèse! I always say that it is the faithful living out, day by day, of our vocation in the little things — changing dirty diapers, working in an office, sweating in a shop — sanctifying the world through our sacrifices and the difficulties we suffer. There will be many who will never appear on the Church’s list of canonized saints but who nevertheless lived their lives in this way.
What are some of the challenges to bringing this message of holiness to Catholics today?
The youth live in this media-driven world, bombarded with all sorts of external stimuli, whether it is TV, or movies or video games, their iPhone, iPad, computer. Constantly bombarded with external stimuli, they live in an entertainment-driven culture so that it is hard to get them to sit down and listen and be still. So we need to find ways to introduce the saints to the youth, perhaps sometimes even using these forms of media.
I think parents especially have a responsibility, as the first educators of their children in the ways of the faith, to introduce their children to the saints as the real heroes, not the superheroes, if you will, of comic-book themes or Hollywood. It saddens me that our culture holds up before us these “icons” of our culture, the celebrities, with the unhappy, worldly, selfish lives these people live. We need saints! So parents need to introduce their children to the saints from the earliest age.
Julian Kwasniewski is a postulant at Silverstream Benedictine monastery in Ireland.