GARCIA-LUENSE: All Saints Day -- The ‘superheroes’ we should emulate

October 27, 2020

This year the Solemnity of All Saints falls on a Sunday. The fact that this annual holy day coincides with the Lord’s day and yet still celebrated on Sunday reminds us of how important this celebration is to our faith.

The role and place of the saints in the Catholic tradition is a distinctive one. This annual celebration includes a remembrance of all the many recognized saints who otherwise would not have a feast day of their own. The fact that this feast, unlike most feasts related to saints, is a Holy Day of Obligation and can replace a Sunday in Ordinary Time teaches us that Mother Church clearly considers it important that everyone takes the time to celebrate sainthood every year as a faith community.

I think that in our contemporary society, the category of saint no longer resonates quite as well as it once did. Perhaps we need a new way of approaching this classic category.

This approach can be taken directly from the process whereby the Catholic Church declares a person a saint. For a person to eventually become a saint, he or she must first be declared venerable. To be declared venerable, the person must be found to have “lived a virtuous life to a heroic degree.” Now here is a category that our contemporary society knows well: the hero.

Popular culture is awash in heroes. This is perhaps no clearer than in the movie industry, where it seems that a huge percentage of blockbuster movies are built around comic-book-inspired heroes. Whether you prefer the Marvel or DC universes, almost everyone today has at least some familiarity with a variety of superheroes. One thing that superheroes often have in common is that they are superhuman. The term “superhuman” sounds like it would not be helpful in trying to gain a greater contemporary understanding of saints. However, I believe a closer look at the word proves its usefulness.

I think that the saints are, in fact, superhuman. If we understand the prefix “super” to mean they exhibit the characteristics of their type to an extreme degree, then by saying that they are superhuman, we are saying that they are supremely human, are most particularly keenly human, and that they achieve not something beyond our human nature but that they somehow achieve the fullness of our human nature to an ultimate degree. Then a call to emulate and follow the saints becomes a call for us to become more human, to realize in ourselves the true nature of our humanity and to become more fully what God created us to be.

This notion of superhuman is, I think, precisely what we need at this particular and unusual time in our history. The past eight months have been a time of tremendous disruption. Countless people have lost jobs, and most of those still working are doing so in ways very different from how they did them at the beginning of the year. Education and parenting of children who are in school look tremendously different for most. Those who have not been overwhelmed by new tasks and new responsibilities suffer perhaps from isolation and a lack of connection and stimulation.

Since, for so many people, the roles of worker, student, parent and friend have been so tightly bound to their sense of self-identity, many people struggle to know themselves.
This situation is precisely the time for us to look at people who have achieved superhuman status. The saints are not superhuman in the sense that they are over, above or beyond what it is to be human. If that is what we meant, in what way could they then actually serve as models and exemplars of the Christian faith? Would it not rather be the case that we could dismiss them entirely as being irrelevant to our lives since they are of a completely different type?

It wouldn’t make sense to strive since it is beyond our regular human capacity. If they are superhuman in that sense, then they are no more a model for us to emulate than the superheroes of our movies and TV shows. Sometimes, those in power use the title “saint” to effectively dismiss those who challenge the status quo. This may be why Dorothy Day resisted in her lifetime those who would call her a saint.

Those whom the Church calls saints are people who have come to know, be and become themselves to such a remarkable degree that people have remembered and admired them for generations. They have achieved this true self-actualization and self-realization precisely in and through their willingness to accept and cooperate with God’s grace. They have taken seriously their baptismal call in which they have been conformed to Christ and allowed that radical reshaping to shape them.

In general, these Catholic heroes did not seek their own greatness, but proceeded in all humility, remembering the admonition, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:43). And the most remarkable thing is that God has shaped them not into something else, but into their true selves.

In this unusual and difficult time, let us celebrate the saints this Sunday and make the month of November a time of renewed interest and attention for these superhuman heroes of our faith. Perhaps we could use the many online and app-based resources to undertake the spiritual exercise of reading about one saint each day. Another idea is to pick a single saint, maybe even our personal patron saint, and work to deepen our spiritual relationship with him or her throughout the month. In any case, may the saints inspire and inform us and model for us a path forward in which we can allow God to reveal to us how to become more truly ourselves.

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.