Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints, and I think the most quoted statement from Pope Francis’ Angelus message for the feast is, “The Saints are not supermen. . . .”
The Holy Father, of course, says this to remind us that the saints are indeed people with whom we can identify and who truly identify with us:
The Saints are not supermen and neither are they perfect. They lived normal lives marked by sadness and joy, hardships and hopes, before reaching the glory of heaven. But when they witnessed God’s love, they followed him with all their heart, unconditionally and without hypocrisy; they dedicated their life to serving others, they bore suffering and adversities without hatred and responded to evil with good, spreading joy and peace. . . .[Being a saint] is not a privilege of the few but everyone’s vocation.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have ever called the saints supermen or superwomen, but I will admit that I’ve always seen the saints as heroes and heroines, as some of the best exemplars of how to follow Christ faithfully, and thus worthy of veneration. Most importantly, I think the Christian can embrace the saints not only because they prove to be powerful intercessors to our inexhaustible list of petitions great and small, but because they are invaluable teachers in forming our consciences.
Blessed John Henry Newman explains this the best. In “Saintliness: The Standard of Christian Principle” of his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, Newman begins with a lesson on the conscience: Conscience is the inner voice and standard by which we can measure thoughts and actions as either right or wrong. But the conscience must be formed with the help of external assistance: “Left to itself, though it tells truly at first, it soon becomes wavering, ambiguous, and false; it needs good teachers and good examples to keep it up to the mark and line of duty. . . .”
Newman bemoans how wealth and notoriety have become the primary formers of conscience, and Pope Francis would full-heartedly agree that such a corruption of the conscience occurs today, within and outside the Church. Instead of the idols of wealth and fame, Newman (and Pope Francis) challenges us to choose the icons of Christ and of the saints who “have been the means of setting up a standard before us of truth, of magnanimity, of holiness, of love.”
Newman is as careful as Pope Francis to refuse to see the saints as something so exceptional that we can never model them. The saints are not “supermen,” and yet:
. . . They are always our standard of right and good; they are raised up to be monuments and lessons, they remind us of God, they introduce us into the unseen world, they teach us what Christ loves, they track out for us the way which leads heavenward. They are to us who see them, what wealth, notoriety, rank, and name are to the multitude of men who live in darkness, objects of our veneration and of our homage.