When aiming for Heaven, one must embrace the chalice of suffering on Earth and to be a true servant of God, one must suffer like a saint.
Throughout the course of human history, God has chosen a myriad of people to spread His message to humankind. There have been prophets, sinners, preachers and even the Son of God Himself. The prophets have been few, the preachers many and the sinners can be found all over. However, for the Catholic, there is no larger group modeling a life of living God’s message than the saints.
The list of men and women who have achieved sainthood is as diverse as the human species itself, encompassing all races, nationalities and social classes – men and women who heard God’s call and answered it by completely submitting to His will. The real-life individual stories of the thousands of saints are far more exciting than almost any dramatic feature Hollywood can produce. There is mystery, comedy, romance and tragedy. Most of all, there is the unifying theme of willfully dying to self and serving God over anything else.
For most non-Catholics – and many Catholics too – there is confusion about what saints actually are. Other religious groups, from Protestants to Muslims, accuse Catholics of worshiping the saints alongside God – an accusation that upon review falls apart so quickly it is tiresome that it is even still used as an anti-Catholic argument. These well-meaning but misinformed groups see the beautiful statues of the saints and the miraculous medals and hear the devotions to individual saints and make a very long leap to the conclusion that Catholics have put the saints on a par with God Almighty. This is simply false and a quick exercise in research would clear these misgivings up immediately.
The word saint simply means holy. The Catholic Church officially bestows this title only upon those who have been absolute beacons of faith in God through the most brutal suffering in life. The process to become a saint, called canonization, is a long and difficult one. Most candidates who would appear qualified for sainthood fail the early litmus test. This does not mean the person wasn’t a saint; it merely demonstrates the high standards necessary for the Church to add him or her to the list of official canonized saints.
Entrance to Consideration
The process to canonize someone as a saint cannot begin less than five years after the person’s death. The Church is thorough with every matter, and it wants to ensure that the case for the individual’s sainthood is not a fleeting one. The Church will not entertain flash-in-the-pan stardom the way the media or general public will. If after five years the case is still strong, the Bishop or diocese who first named the person as a candidate will assemble a diocesan tribunal that will gather and research the person’s life and writings. It is of note that this time requirement has been waived twice, by privilege of the Pope: first for St. Pope John Paul II, and then for St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Research and Scrutiny
Once the necessary information has been compiled and researched, a process that can itself take years, the documentation is sent to the congregation’s college of relators who will manage the person’s candidacy all the way to sainthood or denial. A theological commission is formed that votes on the merits of the candidate to move forward in the process. If they affirm the cause, a recommendation of a Decree of Holy Virtues is sent to the Pope.
The First Miracle
If the Pope affirms the heroic virtues of the candidate, the cause enters the phase that is most difficult: the approval of a miracle performed through the candidate. For all the accusations that the Catholic Church is a bastion of wild superstitions, it actually vigorously tries to prove that purported miracles are not true or can be explained away through some natural cause. This stage is where most candidacies for sainthood will end. The criteria for an event to be deemed a miracle is long and specific, but in brief it must be: unexplainable by natural causes, directly attributed to God and completely a result of intercession through the candidate.
Once the Pope approves the first miracle, the candidate for sainthood is declared blessed, or beatified. Beatification is an honored title, but it is not sainthood. It allows for the official veneration of the candidate by churches and dioceses that are directly related to the person’s life. Beatification is a major step in the journey toward sainthood and the list of people who have attained it is in itself an exclusive group. But to become a saint, one must have something more: a second miracle.
The Second Miracle
Once a candidate has been beatified, the church in charge of the cause for sainthood must then find a second miracle from the candidate’s life. The process for researching and verifying the second miracle is exactly the same as for the first. Once the miracle has been scrutinized and all natural causes have been ruled out and it has been attributed directly to the intercession of the candidate, the original commission formed puts it to a vote. If the vote is in the affirmative, the result is sent to the Pope. If the Pope agrees with the decision, he again issues a Decree of a Miracle.
The Pope will now confirm the candidate as venerated by the Church and declare that person is now with God. This act, the Rite of Canonization by the Supreme Pontiff, is one of the very few times the Pope is directly guided by the Holy Spirit, and thereby infallible. Now that the Church recognizes the person as a saint, he or she is put up as a model for emulation and veneration. The saint may be called upon to intercede (pray) for some specific cause that bears some relation to the saint’s life.
It is because of this tradition of praying to the saints for intercession that Protestant brothers and sisters exploit to say that Catholics worship the saints alongside God. However, if they studied their bible a bit closer they may be surprised to see validation and even encouragement of intercessory prayer. It is documented in scripture that the saints in Heaven offer their prayers as they did on earth, so it is only logical to assume they can be called upon to pray for those still on earth.
Rather than worship the saints, Catholics ask for their prayers, usually in the individual saint’s subject of patronage. The Bible tells us to do this and states that the prayer of a righteous person has great power. What greater righteousness is there, after Christ himself, than the amazing men and women who have been recognized as saints? Their prayers are very powerful, indeed.
Clearly it takes an extremely specific level of piousness to even come close to achieving sainthood. Though the lives and experiences of each of the saints are unique, one characteristic remains in each of them: unceasing love for God and absolute faith that He will never forsake them, no matter what torments or struggles they face in this life. God remembers those who put their complete trust in Him. The prayers of the saints are powerful because they are close to God. If modern Christians want to be close to God, they must emulate the saints.
Although it may seem impossible to rise to the level of virtue that resembles that of the saints, it must be remembered that God is with all who seek Him. For Catholics, the sacrament of Confirmation bestows upon the confirmand the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gifts are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Books could be composed on each of these gifts and still not touch upon their depth, but a thorough study and preparation to receive them will put a person on the fast track to a state of living that will somewhat model a saintly existence.
Wisdom, understanding knowledge and counsel give the recipient a clear vision of God’s will and what it takes to achieve it. One can achieve this level of knowledge by studying scripture with an open heart and full faith that the Holy Spirit will guide and counsel him or her. With a full arsenal of the Word of God, an aspiring saint can fend off the attacks of the Devil – which inevitably come when one is getting closer to God – in the same manner as Jesus did in the desert.
Fortitude and piety are powerful gifts to turn to when the trials that confront all saints come. Suffering in life is a necessary component in mankind’s transcendence into a closer communion with God. Having the fortitude to remain faithful even when it seems all is lost can keep a saint on the path toward the Lord. Piety both keeps the soul searching for God even in the midst of pain and anguish. This can be the most difficult part of the Christian life, to remain steadfast in faith and trust God regardless of what happens. This is also the most essential quality of sainthood.
Fear of the Lord is perhaps the most misunderstood of the Christian values, yet it is the most important. The word fear has a negative context that most non-Christians – and even some Christians – can mistake for the kind of fear that people experience when they are in danger. However, the fear that is referenced regarding the Lord is best described in the Greek noun, phobos, which is used to convey a reverential fear of God. This fear is not apprehension at the thought of God punishing someone for failing to follow His commandments or some other transgression. Rather, it is the fear of letting God down; a fear of not measuring up and being worthy of the unconditional love God has freely given, not only through creating man in His own image, but also in redeeming him from sin through Christ’s death on the cross and sanctifying him through the Holy Spirit. This type of fear is a positive one, and it is only ever experienced where true love exists.
These seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are evident in each of the thousands of saints throughout history – and it was evident in Jesus. Certainly Jesus had no shortage of wisdom, knowledge or piety; He was a pillar of fortitude in the face of, not only the Jewish leaders, but also an empire. Jesus sought out counsel in His most trying times, and His ability to understand those with whom He had very little in common was amazing. Finally, Jesus showed His followers by perfect example what fear of the Lord meant on the night before His crucifixion when He asked His Father to free Him from the sufferings he would endure, but finished by affirming He would fulfill His Father’s will.
Suffering is a cornerstone of almost every saint’s life and there is a very logical reason why. It is only through suffering that one can grow close enough to God to do His work. Embracing suffering like the saints did allows a person to cast off the cares of this life; to seek first the Kingdom of God and in doing so, brings a bit of it into this world. St. Teresa of Avila once said “Suffering is the very best gift He has to give us. He gives it only to His chosen friends.”
As the son of a wealthy businessman, St. Francis of Assisi lived a life of privilege and with the embarkation of a fourth Crusade, impending battlefield glory. That was until his Heavenly Father, as He will so often do, altered the young Francis’ plans. God sent Francis home before he ever got near the battle. Much to his father’s dismay, instead of taking the helm of the family business, Francis embarked on his search for God, renouncing his inheritance and living a life of extreme poverty. This life, however, produced an amazing order of monks, the Franciscans, and brought many people to know the Lord.
St. Francis was fearless in the Lord, to say the least. While the Fifth Crusade was raging, Francis went to the Sultan of Syria to make peace. Francis and his companion on the journey were captured and amazingly they were not killed. The Sultan, a Muslim, became fond of Francis and reportedly told him, “I would convert to your religion which is a beautiful one – but both of us would be murdered.” The Sultan did, however, allow Francis to return home unharmed, a feat in itself for a Catholic during a time of crusade.
St. Francis’ final years were marked by extreme suffering. He suffered the Stigmata – the five wounds of Jesus Christ’s Passion. He began to lose his vision and was operated on by cauterizing his face with a hot iron. Through his suffering, Francis stayed faithful to God. As with all the saints, suffering brought him closer to his Lord, so much that it was during this period of his most intense suffering that he wrote the Canticle of the Sun, expressing his brotherhood with creation in offering praise to God.
St. Francis is a model to all seeking to live a saintly life as he himself commented: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.” Francis could have lived a life of wealth and power, but he heard God’s call and answered it.
Study any saint of God and you will encounter suffering. It is the cornerstone of sainthood. Modern western Christians simply have no concept of the spiritual value of suffering – but those in other regions do. Through vicious and merciless persecution by Da’esh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, modern Chaldean Catholics are not only rebuilding their devastated lives, but they are doing the unthinkable: they are offering forgiveness to those who have taken everything from them. These people embody saintly virtue – they exemplify Christian virtue. Their lives have been torn apart specifically and in the most brutal way for one reason only: because they are Christians. God forgets no suffering that has been endured in His name, and He will not forget them.
Does all this mean that the only way to be a true Christian is to live a life of abject physical, misery? Of course not. But it does illuminate the requirement to cast off the cares of the world in order to do the work of the Lord. One of the reasons people ignore the plight of those who need help the most is that they have become tied to their worldly possessions. The saints had no need for material goods. All they needed was God. Modern Catholics would do well to heed the lesson and cast away the chains of modern life once in a while and reach out to help those who have nobody else.
The saints stood up and lived for God, no matter the cost. Many suffered unspeakable agony for their faith in the Lord. They understood what true faith is. There are saints walking the earth now – they just haven’t been recognized. Any Christian wanting to truly serve God could benefit from some simple advice regarding saints: if you don’t see one, be one.
 Revelation 5:8
 James 5:16
 Mark 16:16
 Paragraph 1831, Catechism of the Catholic Church
 Matthew 4:3-10
 Fear of the Lord: What does it Mean?, Mike Bennett, Life, Hope & Truth Online, http://www.lifehopeandtruth.com/god/who-is-god/fear-of-the-lord
 Luke 22:42
 Suffering of the Saints, Woodeene Koenig-Bricker, OSV Newsweekly, https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/Article/Tabld/535/ArtMID/13567/ArticleID/9102/Suffering-of-the-Saints.aspx
 St. Francis of Assisi, Catholic Online, http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50
 St. Francis of Assisi, Catholic Online, http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50