This past weekend, the Catholic Church enjoyed a rare celebration of the canonization of two of it’s former leaders, John XXIII (pictured) and John Paul II. In the ceremony, both men were recognized and publicly proclaimed as saints.
We understand that sainthood for an individual bestows upon them some special designation and title, but do you really understand what makes someone a saint?
Have you ever considered the question for yourself: could I be a saint? Could someone you know, or have known, in your life be a saint?
The answer to that question leads to an even bigger one, so let’s answer it quickly and get on to that bigger question. Yes, you may be a saint. Yes, you may have known saints during your life, personally and intimately. In fact, I am quite sure that every single human life is touched by saints on a regular basis.
The difference between those formally proclaimed as a “saint” by the Church and the ones that most of us encounter in our daily lives is in the process of formal recognition and proclamation, as well as the degree in which they served God during their lifetime.
Canonization recognizes that a particular individual lived life with an exceptional degree of holiness, and is thus worthy of higher honor, emulation, and veneration.
In Catholic as well as in Orthodox teaching, any Christian in heaven is actually considered to be a saint. So yes, you indeed can one day be a saint, and many whom you have loved were and are indeed saints.
What we know about those who are canonized is that careful scrutinizing of their lives revealed their holiness, and we are assured that these individuals are indeed in heaven, and thus closer to God. Their prayers on our behalf will surely reach His ears.
And there is the rub. We are now assured that both John XXIII and John Paul II are indeed in heaven, with the Lord. We know this about every other person ever formally canonized as a saint. But do we know this about our loved ones? Are we assured for ourselves that we will indeed one day also be in heaven with the Lord, living in glory as a saint?
Is every Pope who ever served the Church now living as a saint in heaven? That seems hardly likely, given any understanding of history. We know for sure that some are, but some just as likely are not. The same can be said of our own loved ones.
An honest answer to that question by any considerate person has to be “no”, there no such guarantees. Most importantly, an examination of the path to heaven, and thus the path to sainthood, leaves us with a simple but difficult truth to accept: we have no way of truly knowing for sure whether, or which among them, our loved ones actually are in heaven.
Just last May, Pope Francis restated a very emphatic position of the Church, that all people have been redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, not just Christians. This includes atheists, radical Islamists, Jews, agnostics, cafeteria Catholics, Buddhists. Everyone. Whatever spiritual or religious label you can place upon another person or yourself. Or none. You have been redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ.
However, as the Pope went on to explain, whomever you are, whatever you personally believe, you must do good. In Francis’ own words: “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us.“
Francis was challenged on the issue of atheists, and further responded: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” Pressed on the atheists, he continued: “Even the atheists. Everyone!” Francis is simply restating an ages old Christian doctrine. As stated by Saint Paul in his ‘First Letter to Timothy’: Jesus gave himself “as a ransom for all.“
Our entry into heaven will ultimately be judged upon what we knew and what we did with that knowledge. Those who know of Jesus Christ, but choose to reject Him and live a life filled with sin have a difficult path. Those who know Him, claim to believe and follow Him, but live their lives in a manner frequently inconsistent with those alleged beliefs tred on unstable ground.
The most sure way to heaven is to accept the gift of Jesus Christ, of his sacrifice on your behalf, to believe in Him, and to then do good in your life in that knowledge. Do good as Jesus did good. Simply doing good without such belief is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. It makes your path that much more difficult.
What we must be willing to accept is that we simply do not know, and have no way of knowing while on this earth, what our loved ones did with their own lives before they left us. We do not know what they truly believed in their hearts. We do not know exactly what they did with their lives in action. We do not know what they did with their sin.
Catholic teaching tells us that sin has a life of it’s own, and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. Such repentance includes not just sorrow at having sinned, and a desire to be free of the spiritual and emotional burdens it has created, but also true repentance includes a desire to repair the damage done by one’s sins. Whether you confessed and repented or not, what have you done to repair the damage done by your sins?
Right now, at this stage of your existence, you can do two things. First, you can change your own life. If you are reading this article, then you are aware of Jesus Christ. Accept his sacrifice on the cross for your sins. Acknowledge his love for you. Embrace your own cross. Confess your sins, do repentance, change your life, do good. Pray for your deceased loved ones, that they may reach heaven, since you do not know their ultimate fate.
We can use the lives of those who have been canonized, those such as Saint John XXIII and John Paul II, as an example of how to live our own lives. They are truly saints, with God in heaven. They not only talked the talk while here on earth, but they walked the walk. It is important that you do both, talk and walk properly in your life. That is the path most likely to lead you to heaven, to achieve your own sainthood. God bless you on your journey.