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I sat there twisting the black bracelet around my wrist inscribed with these three words – Become a Saint – in white. It had been passed out first thing in the morning to all the attendees. The mission had been over eight months in the making, but sitting there in the midst of over 400 people, Dr. John Wood held us and our peers in momentary suspense as he unveiled just how his winding road had found its way to us. In days and weeks that would follow, it was clear that he and his band, Simply RC, had set our parish on fire.
As I sat there thinking about it, John told the story of how his book, Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission came to be published by Matthew Kelly through Dynamic Catholic. He recalled the life-changing phone call in which Matthew told him that the book was a go. But there was one catch. The name had to be changed from Choosing the Saint Inside to something that better appealed to the masses. As John noted, Matthew indicated that people didn’t want to become saints. Although John’s first reaction was to question this whole idea (even though he had little or no experience to debate on), he quickly understood what Matthew was saying: You have to meet people where they are.
Months later, the thought continued to linger with me. Why didn’t we want to be saints? Although I believed deep down that most of us had a desire to do good, I knew that Matthew was right in his contention, especially when it came to men. The question was why. Part of the answer seemed rather easy, and it only took a golf scramble or a conversation at a barbeque to realize that even those men who seemed to be living good lives still often engaged in crass conversations about all sorts of matters. Even if they weren’t acting inappropriately, it certainly seemed that they weren’t thinking and talking virtuously at many points throughout the day. And that’s what it seems saints are called to do, which at times feels like a narrow, somber road. As Billy Joel once crooned, “Sinners have a lot more fun.”
Of course, most of us know that fun is not what we should be seeking. And as a psychologist, I know full well that fun and true happiness and wholeness are often distant cousins (although they don’t have to be), as many men who outwardly engage in all kinds of merriment bear the weight of significant struggles and heartaches, some self-imposed. But it isn’t just about fun. It is about joy and brotherhood, and trying to find it even as someone with many adult responsibilities. It seems that part of why men especially do not aspire to sainthood is that it is increasingly a lonely pathway in a culture where many already feel isolated.
But there is more, and I found myself asking the question: Just how many saints do you know that were husbands and fathers? The answer I came back with was one: Sr. Thomas More (and even he seemed canonized for heroic deeds not directly related to spouse hood and fatherhood). Although I certainly didn’t regard myself as an expert of the canonized world, I had come to know many popes, bishops, priests, brothers, sisters, and even married and unmarried women who had risen to the ranks of sainthood. But when it came to married men with children, I was practically at a loss. Although I knew they probably had existed all throughout history, the accomplishments of being a tremendous father and spouse, although professed to be very important by our Church, seemed to be resigned to second fiddle in comparison to other types of deeds. Undoubtedly, every saint was called to be more than just the primary roles they maintained. But many times when I started thinking about this, my coherent thoughts were shattered by a shill cry from the living room and a request for a diaper change. Frankly, it wasn’t just that sainthood felt like a lonely pursuit with my own cohort. It was also that I didn’t feel like I had hardly any support from two thousand years of Catholic history.
Maybe I was wrong, though. Maybe I just hadn’t paid attention to all the married fathers that were canonized, and had foregone writings about these amazing men. So, like everyone else, I went to the internet in search of what I could find. Through a number of different sites, I came upon www. catholicsaints.info/ and more specifically, a list of saints who were fathers (and those who were mothers). To my surprise, 123 fathers were listed as being saints (for the record, 147 mothers were reportedly canonized. I was encouraged to see this many fathers deemed worthy of this title, and my first reaction was a desire to find out more about these men.
However, given that there are reportedly over 10,000 canonized saints in the Catholic Church, these men would represent just over 1% of the total number of saints. Of course, there are many historical and statistical issues that leave this calculation fraught with problems, not the least of which is that it is likely that good records don’t exist of early saints who may have been fathers themselves. But if we took the numbers at face value, it still raises the question. Why have so few fathers become saints, especially since at least in the United States, almost half of all men will father (or adopt) a child by the time they are in their mid 40’s?
In the end, more questions than answers remain. Years ago, I recalled feeling very disappointed in reading the book Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus. It detailed how microloans had been used in many countries to significantly reduce the rate of poverty. In many situations, it had worked wonderfully with mothers, who used the newfound income as a means of supporting their family more than they could before, and even repaid the loans at high rates. But, when it came time to use the system with fathers, it largely failed. Instead of investing in their families, the men often used the loans in selfish ways. Since then, I have noticed similar trends in many situations, and I continue to wonder if we as men must overcome a sense of self-absorption and pride (especially when others depend on us) that often prevents us from truly seeking out the divine way.
I don’t know. I could be totally wrong on this. But what I do know is that nothing is needed now more in our world than fathers who strive for sainthood. In the midst of the huge challenges our families face today, often as the result of absent or misguided fathers, it seems time that a brotherhood of imperfect men emerge in search of an existence with much higher aspirations than we are often socialized to live. But before sainthood ever happens, it seems we must first be honest with ourselves— about where we are, where we have been, and just what and Whom we are seeking.
Jim Schroederis a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, Indiana. He also writes a monthly column titled "Just Thinking" (www.stmarys.org/articles) designed to inform, educate, and motivate parents and providers in applying pertinent research in meaningful, practical ways.He is the author of Into the Rising Sunand 40 Days of Hopeful Prayer.