“When I grow up and get out of school, I want to be ... a saint.”
Whaaaaat? A saint? You don’t hear that too often, if at all. I mean, a pro-athlete, a firefighter or cop, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a veterinarian, a scientist, a teacher ... yep, those are the most common responses to surveys posing that question to young people. But a saint? That doesn’t make the list.
• Video: Bishop introduces Young Saint series
You know what? You can be any of those things and have any of those career goals ... and still be a saint.
True that, y’all.
Saints are persons to whom God is most important, who always remember that God created and loves them, who live without forgetting his presence, who pray, who put others’ needs first, who try to help others, who are kind, who love their parents and families, who respect others and their differences and don’t bully, who respect themselves, their bodies and those of others, who respect the earth, who stand up for what is right no matter what others say or do.
When you think about it, people who do those things and live that way are good human beings and pretty cool. They make good friends who want to be around them.
You know what else? They are pretty happy, joyful and grateful for what they have. They have it together. They are holy, not perfect – no one is perfect – but holy, living as God intended them to live. They will achieve great things “when they grow up,” but my question is, “Why wait?”
Becoming a saint starts now ... you don’t have to wait until you “grow up.” If you want to be a good person, a holy person, “Why wait?”
Like anything else in life, being good at something takes practice, a lot of practice. That’s true of a career. That’s true of healthy, loving relationships. That’s also true of faith and holiness and ... of becoming a saint!
We need saints in the world, in our country, in the Church, in school, in families, in our friendships, in work, in what we hope to do and to be ... but not only “one day” or way in the future. We need saints right now! And we need to begin to practice right now!
Most times when we think of saints, we usually think of someone older, someone we see in a stained glass window in church or a statue, someone who lived a long time ago. Some dude with a beard and dressed as a monk or priest; some religious woman wrapped in the long dress of a nun with a veil on her head. Someone who spent his or her life in a monastery or convent or desert or with his or her hands always folded in prayer.
There are probably more than 10,000 people who have been named “saints” in the Catholic Church, many of whom looked that way and were truly good, holy people. We need those saints to inspire us to become good and holy. But how many saints looked like you? How many saints were young or your age? The answer? Many more than you realize, several hundred, some of whom died because of their faith.
And most of them didn’t just become saints when they grew up and died and were canonized by the Church. They became saints long before they were canonized, beginning when they were young, when they were your age! They looked like you! They lived their lives and followed the Lord Jesus from their earliest days. They didn’t think of themselves as “saints” but they lived their lives trying to be good, trying to be holy. They wanted to become saints even if they didn’t say it or even know it.
A man who lived in France and died over a hundred years ago – the French author Leon Bloy (1848-1917) – once wrote: “the only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint!” Bloy was raised in a very religious Catholic family, but he hated the Church as a boy growing up. He considered himself an atheist.
When he was 16, he got a job in Paris and met an old Catholic author whom he admired and talked to often, and guess what? As a teenager, he started thinking about the Church differently and experienced a radical conversion. He began writing about his doubts, engaging other writers and artists in conversations about faith and became a devoted Catholic.
He was never canonized a saint, but he influenced others to believe deeply in God and the Church. People listened to him. Bloy realized that God was the “whole reason for our existence,” and that’s what it takes to start becoming a saint. In his first sermon as Pope in 2013, almost a hundred years after Bloy’s death, Pope Francis quoted his writings!
People who study and do research in religion these days have published surveys they have conducted, revealing that young people are now leaving the Catholic Church at age 13 in large numbers, around the time when they receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. It seems that, for them, Confirmation is their “graduation from religion and faith.”
As Bishop, I am deeply saddened by this. Instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit and his gifts at a turning point in their young lives, they are abandoning his grace and their commitment to the Catholic faith. And what is replacing it? The faith-less values – or the lack of values – of a world that rejects God and Christ and his Gospel.
A Church that loses the young is a Church that loses hope and joy, a Church without saints seeking to make God the center of their young lives ... for the rest of their lives.
This year, the Diocese of Trenton is celebrating a “Year of Youth,” a time for welcoming the young, a time for listening to the young, a time for encouraging and strengthening their faith and for showing them the difference that faith can and will make in their lives. It is a year dedicated to helping them, helping you want to be saints. More than ever, we needs saints who look like you, who are like you. The young – you – are the hope of the Church, not only for the future but for the present. We need saints, we need you now!
Blessed Pope Paul VI, who will be canonized a saint on Oct. 14th this year, wrote that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he/she does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” This “Year of Youth” is for the young, yes, but it will come and go if we – priests, deacons, religious, teachers, parishioners, all the faithful, especially parents – fail to be witnesses to the Gospel, fail to be witnesses to the faith of the saints on whose shoulders our Church has existed for 2,000 years, fail to be witnesses to a joyful, committed and lived experience of Christianity. The young need our witness to Christ and they need it now. How can they believe us if our lives do not give this witness?
On the same day that the Church canonizes 81-year-old Blessed Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) along with the martyred 63-year-old Blessed Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero (1917-1980), Pope Francis will also canonize 19-year-old Blessed Nunzio (1817-1836), a young Italian boy who spent his short life of faith seeking holiness in an extraordinary way. These saints were each witnesses to Christ, but young Nunzio earned this honor and title as a teenager and model, a witness for young Catholics everywhere, for you.
In this “Year of Youth” I hope to tell you the stories of young saints; people like you, young women and men who have something to teach young people in the Church so that they, too – you – can be witnesses to the faith like them. Hopefully you, too, will want to be saints.