We often think of saints as ancient or medieval figures. So the news from the Vatican that two former popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, have been cleared to be named saints caught many of us off guard.
These two holy men lived and guided the church in the 20th century, a time in the near past that many of us alive today can remember. It is strange to think of famous contemporary men as saints, as a breed apart, and yet perhaps stranger that we do not recognize the many saints who are not famous, but who walk among us.
Becoming a saint in the Catholic Church is a rigorous journey. There are three steps in the process of formal canonization, which begins only after death. A person is proclaimed "venerable" by the pope after a thorough investigation into his or her life and writings, first by the local bishop and then by a panel of theologians. Beatification occurs when one miracle is attributed to the person in question, although this requirement is waived for martyrs. Once a miracle is verified, and it must happen after the person's death in order to show the power of the deceased person's intercession, the potential saint is called "blessed." Only after evidence of one more miracle can a person be recognized as a "saint." Official canonization is an exacting process, and so not every saintly person will be officially called a saint.
As we prepare to welcome these two recent popes into the litany of saints, I am mindful of people whom I consider saint material. They are, however, precisely the people who would protest the idea of according themselves such pretension. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a powerful voice for social justice, often admonished people not to call her a saint: She had no wish to be relegated to a pedestal.
I sometimes imagine the Blessed Mother, when I pray the Rosary and come to the Fifth Glorious Mystery, which is the Coronation of Mary in Heaven, gently telling God not to make such a fuss. That's how moms are. That's how true saints are.
I am also thinking of my friend Glory, who died recently after a valiant but losing battle with cancer. It was noted at her funeral that she was aptly named, because she was a glorious presence in all our lives. She recognized the glory of God in the small things in life, and her laugh was like sunshine warming a cold room. Glory was a teacher, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a friend, a mentor, an advocate, a lifelong learner, and a beloved daughter of God. She was a woman of such strong faith that even as she enthusiastically embraced the joys of life, she did not fear death. She suffered, and she had her bad days, but her light was always on for anyone who needed her. Glory will likely not be canonized, but she lived a truly saintly life.
I am convinced that we all have saints in our lives, even if we do not use that terminology. We all know those special people who seem to have an inner peace, a deep love for others, a connection to the divine. We all sense when we are in the presence of the holy, thanks to those people who help us recognize God, both in ourselves and in others. There are over 10,000 canonized saints in the Catholic Church. There are millions more who embody the qualities of saints, and who love us with the heart of God while they walk among us. Which makes us miss them even more when they go to rest in the palm of God's hand.