What is a Saint?

One of my favorite spiritual writers, Thomas Merton, offered an important insight about saints.  He wisely observed that saints are not perfectionists.  That is, we shouldn’t expect a saint to be someone who has lived a perfect life or has even aspired to live such a life.  Saints are human beings; people who have struggled, questioned and disappointed themselves and others at times.  

Another truth about saints is that no saint ever thought of herself or himself as that—a saint.  Those we consider saints were and are very much aware of their failings.  

So, what is a saint?  A definition that I appreciate is this: a saint is someone who is transparent.  Saints can be “seen through,” and what we can see through them is something at the heart of reality, something at the heart of God.

I thought of this definition recently when I heard a story about Pope John Paul II.  This true story has three characters: the pope, a priest, and a beggar.  A fortunate priest was invited to have dinner with Pope John Paul II.  The priest, let’s call him Father James, felt honored and blessed, as we would expect.  

As he was walking to the Vatican for the special evening, Father James passed a beggar.  Those of us who have visited Rome and Vatican City will acknowledge that beggars commonly frequent the doorways and sidewalks near St. Peter’s, hoping for some spare change from tourists.  Once Father James passed this beggar, however, he realized that he recognized him.  Turning around, he faced the beggar, a man who had once been a fellow seminarian.  

Father James spoke to his friend, asking what had happened and how he might offer help.  At the same time, he realized that if he stayed much longer, he’d be late for his dinner with the pope.  He told the beggar that he had to leave but promised that he’d return after his dinner and the two of them could spend more time together.  

Very early in the dinner, the pope said that he could tell that Father James had something on his mind.  Father James recounted the shock of having encountered a fellow seminarian who was now a beggar in Rome. 

The pope instructed Father James to return to his friend and ask him to join them at dinner.  Soon Father James brought back his friend, and the three ate the meal together.  When the dinner was over, the pope asked the beaten-down beggar if he would like him, the pope, to hear his confession.  The man said yes, and the two found a quiet spot where the man made his confession, perhaps for the first time in years.    

A nice story, but not the end of the story.  After the man offered his confession, Pope John Paul knelt down next to him and asked the beggar to hear his confession.  

When I heard this story, I thought again about saints being transparent.  I believe if Pope John Paul could speak to us, he would say the story isn’t about him at all.  I can imagine him saying that the real character in the story is not a pope, a priest, or a beggar, but the One behind the scene, the merciful God who searches for lost sheep and who throws a party for us prodigal sons and daughters.