This Sunday, Pope Francis canonized seven new saints. Canonization is an official declaration by the Holy See that a person is a saint. The people thus honored include José Sánchez del Río, a 14-year-old boy who refused to disown his faith under Mexico's anti-clerical government; José Gabriel del Rosario Brochero, the "gaucho priest" who went through enormous difficulties to minister to the poorest of the poor in 19th-century Argentina; and the Carmelite mystic Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity.
Catholicism's profusion of saints is one of the most beautiful and profound aspects of the faith, stretching as they do for millennia (the Old Testament's prophets are traditionally counted among the saints), in a chain linking every generation. The Church's doctrine of the "communion of the saints" holds that, as members of the Church, all Christians are held together by mystical bonds. Just like friends may pray for each other and support each other, so too can those who have preceded us in the Heavenly Kingdom pray for us and support us as our Christian brethren.
God so transcends us that it is impossible to understand him, Christians believe. But he loves us so much that he communicates who he is through countless images. For instance, Jesus is called "the perfect image of the Father." The beauty of nature is another such image, as are the lives of the saints. More prosaically, Christians are called to imitate Jesus in their daily lives, but what does it mean to be "Jesus" as a doctor, as an artist, as a politician, as a teacher, as a wife, a mother, a husband, a father, a friend? The saints provide powerful inspiration to Christians, in their daily life.
These beliefs have always been part of the Christian tradition, but there's another, more modern aspect to what Pope Francis did. The profiles of the seven canonized saints — male and female, ordained and lay, founders of institutions and secluded mystics — show the diversity of the Church.
This is a conscious effort. The late Pope John Paul II canonized more people than any pope — literally hundreds. This was his deliberate choice to highlight a classical, yet modernizing Christian doctrine: the universal call to holiness.
The image of the "saint" can be a bit foreboding. Many of the most popular saints have done extreme things — founded major religious orders, died as martyrs, suffered astonishing trials, or produced tremendous works of the human spirit.
Consciously or not, many Christians believe that "being a saint" is not for them. They believe in Jesus, but they believe that true, heroic faith is something reserved for the great and that they simply need to get along, praying as they can and trying to be nice to other people. If Jesus called "blessed" (another word for "saint") the "poor in spirit," then they are middle class in spirit. On more days than I'm comfortable to admit, I am certainly among their number.
If to be a saint only means loving others as Jesus loved his friends, then Jesus was abundantly clear that this is something every disciple is called to, and can do, with the help of God's Spirit. And this is what the Church's profusion of saints is there to remind us. Their conditions, their eras, their life stories, are all utterly different, but they all tell the same story. And they were still all-too-human sinners, warts and all. Not everyone is called to be a priest or nun, or to start a new movement, or to be tortured to death for the faith, but everyone is called to be a saint. Everyone is called to be an image of Jesus.
The 19th-century French mystic and writer Léon Bloy once said, "There is only one sadness in this life, and that is to not be a saint." For the Church, every day is a reminder of this truth.