Dark Devotional: Saints Are Never Perfect

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).

If there’s one relationship red-flag I wish I could get every person to memorize, it would be this: if someone seems too good to be true, he probably is. Evil people depend on masks of respectability, and will do everything they can to convince you they’re fine, upstanding folk just like you.

Someone who is hoping to lure you into the trunk of his car needs you to trust him that he’s a safe person. He’ll be the charming, nice-looking guy wearing a sling or hobbling on crutches, shyly asking if you’ll carry his books for him to his starving-student VW Bug. The scraggly-bearded, foul-smelling man sitting on the steps of your church after Mass is probably someone who just needs a shave, a shower, and a place to call home. Or, perhaps he’s St. Benedict Joseph Labre.

Someone who wants to separate you from your money in the name of God needs you to trust her that she knows the one and only way to heaven. She’ll be the spiritual cheerleader with the pretty face and thousand-dollar power suits telling you to send her hundred-dollar bills for her to pray over and bring down God’s blessings on you. It’s not likely to be the woman who gives away her own money to build schools and churches for marginalized people of color. That’s probably St. Katharine Drexel.

I think about this every time Catholic social-media influencers rhapsodize over Father He’s-So-Holy or Sister She-Lives-For-Jesus’-Sake. How are they so sure Father and Sister are Holy and Live For Jesus? Because they’re orthodox, by the standards of the influencers, and are willing to tell everyone who will listen (and many who won’t) why they’re going to hell unless they do whatever it is Father Holy and Sister Mary Jesus tell them to do.

If you page through the New Testament, or through a compilation of saints’ lives, what should leap out at you is how unholy the apostles and their followers have been ever since Jesus left for heaven. The apostles fought bitterly amongst themselves over whose mission project was nearest to the Lord’s heart and what the basics for baptism should be. And they’d been trotting after Jesus for three years. You’d think they could’ve picked up a few clues.

Then you go through the saints’ lives and find Augustine admitting to stealing fruit off the neighbor’s tree and keeping mistresses. Then there’s Olga of Kiev who brought down the hammer on the tribe who killed her husband. King Louis IX’s wife refused to testify in favor of his canonization and Sister Mary MacKillop was excommunicated for a while for refusing to obey a priest. (Good for her, by the way, and the Church eventually agreed she hadn’t done anything wrong—but, on paper, excommunication doesn’t look good on a saint’s resume.)

What makes a person a saint? Thomas Aquinas supposedly once told some admirers who wanted him to write out a treatise on the subject that the only thing necessary for sainthood was to “will it.” In other words, if you want to be with God in the end, choose him and he’ll choose you.

Paul was a bit more wordy on the subject in his letters. But if you need to boil down his advice to a sound bite, the money quote is from this week’s epistle to the Corinthians: “Be reconciled to God.”

When you fall, get up again and stumble on. Don’t worry about doing the heavy lifting. God’s already reconciled the world to himself by Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. He’s not counting up your sins, weighing them in scales, and clucking when you go over the legal limit. All that’s necessary is that you want forgiveness.

He’ll forgive you, Jesus promised. How many times, his disciples asked skeptically. Seventy times seven times. How can we possibly keep track of that? You can’t, Jesus essentially responded, and that’s the point.    

Professional Apologist types—I know them well as I used to play one on the Internet—like to use this reading to stump for the sacrament of confession. Paul, being an apostle and everything, was telling everyone to go to confession to a priest with all his talk of “implore[ing] you on behalf of Christ” and being handed “the ministry of reconciliation” by Christ himself. And, snark aside, this is certainly a valid interpretation of the Scripture passage.

But this Scripture reading can also be read as a mission given to all of Christ’s followers. We’re all being tasked with comforting those who wonder if God wants them back in his life, with letting them know that God loves them, has already cleared the path for them when they’re ready to take it, and is inviting them home.

No matter what I’ve done, they might ask. No matter whether I have a whole lot of faith right now? Yes. If you have a mustard seed, Jesus said, it can grow from there. You just have to want to reconcile with God and he’ll do the rest.

But I’m not holy, they might say. I’m not perfect. Welcome to the club. The perfect may not make it to heaven anyway because they’re trusting in their own respectability to get past the pearly gates. Those who make it to heaven are those who allow themselves to be made perfect by opening themselves, warts and all, to reconciliation with God.

Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.

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