“The only great tragedy in life,” wrote the French novelist Léon Bloy, “is not to become a saint.” Pope Francis quotes this judgment approvingly in Gaudete et exsultate, his apostolic exhortation “on the call to holiness in today’s world.” He also quotes a less dramatic formulation of the same idea in Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord—each in his or her own way—to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.”
However one puts it, this is an idea that makes many of us deeply uncomfortable. We like our saints to be exceptions, the more exotic the better: an elderly Albanian woman in a sari, a wooden statue of a martyr carrying his head in his hand, a thirteenth-century Italian talking to the birds and rolling in the snow to stave off lust. We are not like that, thank goodness. We are just ordinary human beings, with ordinary human appetites and shortcomings. We aren’t trying to be holy; we’re just doing our best. Or, if not quite our best, then as much as can reasonably be expected. When we say, “I’m no saint,” it’s almost never an admission of failure, but instead an insistence on our full humanity, as if saints were somehow either more or less than fully human—eunuchs, maybe, or angels.
This is, according to Francis, both a failure of imagination and a failure of nerve. Near the beginning of Gaudete et exsultate he writes, “do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” And near the end of the exhortation, he makes the point again: “[God] does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfillment.” Holiness should neither scare nor bore us.