By Matt Crosby
In a world where young people may struggle to find meaning, it’s quick and easy for them to look up to someone who posts clever content on social media.
However, taking the time to examine the lives of the saints offers deeper insight and connects us to lasting role models and a version of heroism that is not self-glorifying.
And there is a saint for everyone.
Saints aren’t boring
Chris Uhler, campus minister and religion instructor at Roncalli Junior and Senior High Schools in Aberdeen, describes his campus ministry role as very focused on relationship building. He’s responsible for coordinating retreats for each class every year, maintaining a steady presence in the campus ministry room, and discipleship encounters.
“My job is basically to help kids learn their Catholic faith and then learn how to live it by coming to love Jesus,” he said.
Chris says young people are looking for meaning in many areas of their lives, and studying great figures throughout history can provide a source of inspiration. But in the search for meaning today, young people might often look to celebrities, athletes, social media influencers and others.
However, he recommends a healthy examination of the lives of the saints to help relay the Christian imaginative vision to students. This approach provides balance in a celebrity-driven culture, which can often be motivated by self-centeredness or the pursuit of personal glory.
“I think what the saints can do through their lives is illustrate that living a Christian life is not boring,” he said. “Living a Christian life is actually filled with great adventures and great opportunities if we actually say ‘yes’ to God.”
Chris points to the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a patron of youth around the world, who was athletic, fun-loving and courageous. Although he came from a wealthy and influential family, Pier Giorgio Frassati is known for his outreach to poor people, and he frequently gave food and medicine to those in need.
Chris says Frassati’s actions represent the love of others through a love of Jesus Christ.
“I think that through his story and his example, it gives this great vision of what it means to be Christian and how it’s not about ourselves,” Chris said.
Youth captivates youth
Although it depends on the preference of the individual, saints who were young at the time of their deaths often have strong appeal among today’s youth says Father Tony Klein, parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls. A short list includes Frassati, St. Maria Goretti, St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Miguel Pro.
In addition, the saints who lived more recently may captivate the memory and imagination in ways not as easy for saints who lived many centuries ago. Blessed Miguel Pro, for example, is a Mexican Jesuit priest who was martyred in 1927.
“It does not mean we cannot relate or connect with saints who lived 1,500 years ago,” Father Klein said. “But there is a certain proximity to saying, ‘wow, this was in Mexico and that I’ve been there.’”
While studying at seminary, Father Klein learned more about the lives of the saints, their importance and how we can befriend them. At this time, he was inspired by Blessed Miguel Pro because of his courage and ability to live joyfully in the midst of persecution during a time when the Mexican government was deeply anti-clerical and anti-Catholic.
Chris notes many of his students have found St. Therese of Lisieux to be a great model of faith because of her practice of doing small things with great love. Students see their faith as something deeply intimate and they find comfort in knowing the smallest acts of love, such as a prayer or fasting, holding a door, or smiling at someone, can be a way to live out their faith.
“So many people, myself included, want to do these big things for God, but the example of St. Therese shows us that living our faith is not a daunting task, but one that is accessible to us daily in our interactions with each other and our Lord,” Chris said.
Holy lives offer hope
In Chris’s experience, high school athletes frequently draw upon St. Michael and St. Sebastian, whose example helps young athletes not depend solely on their own strength. Although it can be easy to develop an individual or hero mentality in athletic competition, instead relying on the strength of Christ to propel us helps us look to and trust in our teammates. Athletes are not competing alone, just as St. Michael and St. Sebastian were not battling alone.
Father Klein says the lives of saints like St. Paul and St. Augustine appeal to young people because they can learn from the witness of those who experienced the pain of their own sin drastically.
“We can be inspired by that,” he said. “In a way, take their word for it that it is not worth it to live a life of debauchery or sin. But, if you find yourself there, you’re not without hope.”
Father Klein explained that young people have high aspirations, which, for some, can border on unrealistic expectations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because expectations can be purified.
“I think that desire for greatness is really something we see manifested in the lives of the saints. It can be through martyrdom, which is the ultimate act of courage,” Father Klein said. “But it can also be lived out in ways less dramatic by looking at the lives of simple saints. I say simple meaning kind of a hidden life. They really were not known in their time a whole lot. It was really after their death that their holiness started to be seen more by other people. It can really help us to understand it’s okay to desire greatness, but greatness does not necessarily have to be Captain America.”
On the topic of superheroes, Father Klein points out we are definitely drawn to them, noting the overwhelming popularity of the Marvel films franchise. But the hero story goes back at least to the ancient times of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Our natural need for strong role models who stand up for truth and goodness in difficult circumstances includes timeless themes involving conflict, danger and facing evil forces.
“I think that is the important thing about the saints,” Father Klein said. “We have role models in the world, and unfortunately sometimes the world secularly canonizes a person and then that person, before they die, does some really foolish things and causes all sorts of people to be distraught.”
Father Klein says we can be certain of the holiness of the saints, who won’t disappoint in the way a modern-day worldly figure might.
“So the saints, we can be secure about,” he said. “They’re safe role models for eternity.”