By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published February 4, 2010 | En Español
I should know better by now, but I felt personally offended by a recent news article that purported to describe Pope John Paul II’s practice of self-mortification. The author wrote that the late Holy Father frequently slept on the floor of his bedroom and occasionally engaged in the practice of self-flagellation, alleging, “He whipped himself with a belt!” The author’s cavalier attitude ridiculed the Pope’s penitential routine and seemed to insinuate that he was weird if not deranged because of the practices. The headlines were intended to capture your attention and not to explain the religious habits of a man who still enjoys the admiration of countless millions of people the world over.
I should have remembered that any person who is in serious pursuit of holiness in any age will routinely be positioned outside of a society’s standard for what is normal. As John Paul II’s life continues to be scrutinized under the procedures of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that may lead eventually to his beatification, more and more public attention will be paid to the way that he lived his life.
Saints are people who always live outside of the norms of their times. They are eccentric because they choose to pursue God ardently in spite of the prevailing customs. When any society attempts to give explanation to the lives of saints, it will always resort to describing them as different, out of the ordinary and unusual.
The saints in our midst will always be out of the commonplace in their approach to life. In our own times, saints will continue to urge us to value and respect every human life, especially those that are most vulnerable and innocent. They will defend the poor, stand with the stranger, welcome the newcomer, abhor brutality, and show respect even toward those with whom they might disagree. The saints will find time for prayer and honor God on His day. They will fast and do penance so as to allow their spiritual life to flourish in spite of the cravings of the flesh. They will also take positions that are contrary to what may be fashionable and popular.
Saints will do those things in ways that may make others uncomfortable because saints challenge what society may believe to be really desirable and valuable.
I should have recalled that when the world looks at saints the world will always find them peculiar. The Lord Jesus warned His disciples as much when He told them: If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.
We need saints because without them we might simply believe in the standards of our day and lose focus on the values that belong to God’s Kingdom. Every religion has its customs of prayer and penance, and they all seem to be described as strange or bizarre in the public forum. Whether it be the traditions of the Jewish community during the High Holy Days, Muslims’ tradition of fasting during the month of Ramadan, or our own Lenten customs when we allow our spiritual values to impact and guide our lives, we are often portrayed as odd. What people of faith need to remember is that being odd in the eyes of society may often be a very good indication that we are solidly on the road to holiness.