How to become a saint

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March 27, 2013 by Alex Johannigman

I often think of saints as those who lived nearly sinless lives, and that to become a saint means you did a pretty good job of living a good life and not sinning much. You weren’t Jesus, but hey, you were pretty close.

As I’ve studied more about the saints and as I follow the life of Pope Francis (a saint in the making imho), I’ve begun to learn that sainthood is not really about avoiding sin (Hi St. Augustine!!) Sure, that is a part of it. We don’t think of saints as committing mortal sins every week. But the thing that sets them apart from merely good people is the way their lives were radically different. They aren’t just good people who did good things. There’s something extraordinary about their thoughts and actions that make you aware that this man or woman had a closeness to God that inspired them to a whole new level of holiness.

Pope Francis has amazed the world over the past couple weeks not because he hasn’t said mean things about other people, hasn’t been greedy or prideful, and hasn’t lied to his security guards about where he was going (although I’m sure he’d like to). He’s appeared saintlike to the world because he is living a life that is radically different from the norm, and even radically different from the life of a typical pope. His humble actions are a constant reminder to the world that it’s not about him. The leader of one of the largest groups of people in the world wants nothing more than to be their servant.



Popes don’t get out of the popemobile to bless a crippled man during their installation masses…


Oh, sorry, my reservation was under a different name.

Even Pope Francis’ recent decision to live in the room he’s been staying in since the conclave rather than moving into the more luxurious papal apartment feels radical. There is no real reason for him to do it. After all, who else will end up living in the papal apartment if the Pope doesn’t? But he wants to show us all how to live more radically holy lives. Would living in the papal apartment be sinful? Absolutely not. It’s even something many saints would do, as is evidenced by the number of popes who were later canonized after their deaths. But it is radical. And it is inspirational.

The thing that I love about Pope Francis so far is that he’s reminded me of the radically different life that Christ calls us to live. We see it all over the Acts of the Apostles after Pentacost, and in the gospels when Jesus tells his follower to do things that seem, well, crazy. I’m reminded that if I want to become a saint, a good life won’t cut it. I’m called to be radically holy.

How fitting it is that the first Jesuit pope is challenging the world to, in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Go forth and set the world on fire.”


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