By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published May 19, 2017 | En Español
Since becoming a bishop, I consistently have highlighted the significance of the saints of the Catholic Church whenever I confirm our youngsters. I do so because as we all know young people are very impressionable and easily influenced by prominent people.
Just consider for a moment the pop, sports and Hollywood personalities that capture the attention and the admiration of our youngsters. Not all of these teen idols are wholesome or praiseworthy models for young people—and that’s an understatement if ever there was one.
The saints provide examples that should inspire our kids, especially if our youngsters come to know their histories and challenges and the similarities that they share with all of us. The saints were teenagers, too—and not without their own struggles. The closer we examine the lives of the saints, the more they should inspire us by their examples of faith, generosity and endurance.
Recently a number of more contemporary American saints have risen to prominence. We know that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American saint and that Katharine Drexel, who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, was a Philadelphia heiress whose fortune was spent evangelizing Native Americans and African-American peoples. Through St. Katharine’s generosity, Our Lady of Lourdes was able to open a school here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta that eventually educated thousands of black kids as a proud legacy of this local church.
More recently, three American priests have drawn the attention of the church as they witnessed in different ways the grace of holiness. Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, spent his priesthood ministering to the folks in Guatemala and eventually became our first American priest martyr there. Father Solanus Casey, a humble Wisconsin-born Capuchin, who worked quietly for years in service to the poor in Detroit, will soon be beatified. And Father Augustus Tolton, the first identified African-American priest to serve in the United States, has been recognized for his holiness and apostolic zeal under incredible circumstances. Each of these people should inspire all of us and help us to see that holiness is both possible and achievable under the most trying circumstances and right here in our own nation.
Several other American candidates for sainthood are advancing in the process. Why is this important? Its importance is not dependent upon a nationalistic pride, but an important reminder that holiness is not a state belonging to another age or another culture. Sanctity is achievable within our own times and in our own communities. Above all, saints are reminders that holiness is a reachable goal. Young people need to be reminded that the real heroes and heroines in life are those who live life in such an enthusiastic and generous fashion—in fact they are the real superheroes that we ought to pursue.
Young people need to be convinced that not only is holiness achievable; it is a desirable goal—much more so than fame, fortune, influence, prestige or beauty. That will take some effort since the world of today highlights the importance of those goals—and sanctity is relegated to perhaps a nice but irrelevant aspiration. Popular culture suggests that the people who really matter in this world are those with these passing qualities, which, however, do not guarantee happiness or personal satisfaction.
The saints are those who achieve human fulfillment that defies time and public status.
The saints clearly need better “marketing” in today’s environment. I try to do that by helping our youngsters learn about Teresa of Calcutta, Paul of Tarsus, Catherine of Siena, Josephine Bakhita, Giorgio Frassati and all the others who have captured the hearts and the imagination of Catholics throughout the centuries.
Pope Francis just canonized two of the Portuguese children who saw the Mother of God in Fatima. These youngsters were unschooled, poor and undeniably unimportant in the world of 1917—yet Mary chose to visit them and to ask them to remind the entire world of our need for penance and renewal of heart. One hundred years after their deaths, people still marvel at their message. I wonder how many of today’s superstars will be able to claim such longevity—even with the vast attention of today’s media promoting their importance?