Of Saints – and Their ‘Companions’

Note: Be sure to tune in tomorrow, Thursday, July 11th at 8 PM Eastern to EWTN for a new episode of the Papal Posse on ‘The World Over.’ TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal and contributor Fr. Gerald E. Murray will join host Raymond Arroyo to discuss Archbishop Vigano’s excommunication, further Latin Mass restrictions (projected to come later this month), as well as other developments in Rome and the U.S. Check your local listings for the channel in your area. Shows are usually available shortly after first airing on the EWTN YouTube channel.

The other day someone asked me whether only those recognized as “saints” are in Heaven. I get this question quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it takes this form: “So, is it possible that my grandma is in Heaven, even though she’s not a saint?” – where the underlying sub-text seems to be: “She’s not a saint, and she definitely wasn’t a saint.” There are two issues here, not one, so let’s take them up separately.

I have to wonder what people think saints were like in life. There seems to be this presumption that men and women who are now recognized as “saints” were all quiet, clean, orderly, and pious. Most saints were far from “saintly,” if by “saintly,” you mean something like what one sees in certain pious Gothic sculptures and Renaissance paintings – people always deep in prayer or walking around with their eyes turned up to Heaven even when being stabbed with hot pokers. They never swore; they never got angry; they never had doubts; they never had bad thoughts.

You could only think this if you’d never read any of the actual lives of the saints. Just read a little about Saint John the Baptist, Saint Jerome, Saint Catherine of Sienna, or Saint Teresa of Calcutta, just to name a few. All were (and are) saints, but none fits the saintly stereotype.

So, if grandma didn’t seem all that “saintly,” this doesn’t mean she couldn’t or wouldn’t be enjoying the Beatific Vision. None of us earns our way into Heaven. We receive it as a gift of grace won by Christ’s sacrifice. We don’t tick up “good deeds” that God must recognize and “let us in.” Rather, the good deeds themselves are God’s gift. They are a foretaste of Heaven.

“But grandma wasn’t exactly St. Francis,” you say. (Who among us is?) And no one talks about “St. Betty” the way they talk about St. Theresa of Avila. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t enjoying the Beatific Vision with the other saints whose names we do know. There are plenty of saints – even saints we regularly venerate – whose names we don’t know. Think, for example, of St. Paul Miki “and companions” and St. Charles Lwanga “and companions.” Who were these companions?

I’ve sometimes joked that it would be just my luck to get martyred because I happened to be standing next to a holy person when he or she was martyred. Then I would only be known to future generations as one of “the companions” when people celebrate “St. Salvatore Cordileone and companions.” And then in some Catholic schoolroom in the future, a curious child would ask a nun: “Who were the companions?” and the answer would be: “No one knows.”

You might say: “Yeah, but you’d be in Heaven!” Yes, and I definitely want that. But I also think I would prefer not to be standing next to a saint when he or she gets martyred. I’m an academic. I prefer to just read about such people.

St. Paul by Claude Vignon, c. 1622-24 [Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA]. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
The saints whose names we know are those whose graces have a special public function in the Church. But no one has ever said that they’re the only ones in Heaven, or that they’re the only saints. Think of “Mother’s Day.” On that day, we may read an article about an especially wonderful mother or mothers. (Here is one I wrote.) Like the saints, this mother will undoubtedly also have plenty of sins. But we recognize her virtues and her love because we want to honor them, and we want others to imitate them in their own way.

When we honor this particular mother, we know there are scores of other mothers out in the world working quietly and selflessly, loving and serving their families and neighbors, using their talents to serve God in the world and in the workplace in ways that everyone around them knows, but which the wider world may never hear of.

There are people in every walk of life who quietly make a difference in the lives of others who never win big awards, star in a television special, or get honored by their college or university. An article for another day is the extent to which so many contemporary public awards go to those who shouldn’t be rewarded. Do you really care that you didn’t get the Rhodes Scholarship or MacArthur “genius” award when you see who has?

In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More asks young Richard Rich, “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.” To which Rich replies: “But if I was, who would know it?” More tells him: “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”

Ah yes, but there’s that lure of celebrity. Everyone wants to a someone, part of the “in” crowd, one of those who are “seen” and “recognized,” someone who “makes a difference” in the world, not a nobody, one of hoi polloi.

When my students say, “I want to make a difference in the world,” I remind them: “Hitler made a difference in the world. Not a good difference, but he made a big difference.” Then I have them read a story about a little village in France (Le Chambon) where the villagers, whose names you’ll never have heard, saved thousands of Jews during the Second World War. They made a difference; the kind of difference God wanted them to make.

And then I remind them that, decades later, they probably know almost none of the names of the major figures (other than Hitler) who dominated the twentieth century, nor can they probably name any Japanese emperors or any African kings. But we still venerate St. Paul Miki and companions and St. Charles Lwanga and companions. We know they’re alive. But those powerful kings and emperors who strode the world like gods, where are they now?

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You may also enjoy:

Robert W. Shaffern Joining Heaven and Earth

Robert Royal The Politics of Heaven and Hell

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.