As he was being burned alive Saint Lawrence said to his captors, "Turn me; this side is done." Saint Justin the Martyr as he is known was asked by a Prefect of Rome to bring him all the gold and silver from the churches within one day or face beheading. On the twenty-fourth hour, he brought the patrons of the church, along with the mentally ill, sick, and disabled, saying, "These are the treasures of our church." He was immediately beheaded.
Father Isaac Jogues, who was on a mission to bring the native Mohawks, Huron, and Iroquois in North America to Christ, was captured and forced to run the gauntlet. His beard was pulled out, his fingers sawed off with oyster shells, and his flesh was cut off and eaten by the villagers. At night, he was tied spread-eagle to the ground and children were encouraged to throw live coals on his bare flesh. Despite this, he persevered and as a result, 1,400 North American Indians came to Christ through his teachings after his violent martyrdom.
What is a saint to us of the apostolic faith? What is the common thread? We know that Saint Peter, before he was transformed at Pentecost, denied Jesus three times, yet later became the first apostolic leader of our church. We also have a paradox where saints like Joan of Arc were killed by some in the church, burnt at the stake. In her case it was a jealous Bishop. To Roman Catholics, saints are merely humans, some of whom were once miserable people, such as Saint Paul, who once had Christians put to death.
There are thousands upon thousands of saints whose real-life stories are documented and live on to this day. They understood Christ's words when he said, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life or what can one give in exchange for his life?"
What does dying to self, which Christ and his gospel speak to us in volumes mean? It's a calling from the Shepherd to drop everything that seems important in this life to follow Him. Saint Ignatius terms it a relinquishment of "self-will, self-love, and self-interests." He says it is positive in not seeking the honors and esteem of others and self-condemning because man knows that evil is his own doing. Humility is exercised towards God and neighbors: towards God, who as the Creator gives man whatever he possesses, and towards his neighbors by recognizing their worth in the eyes of God – in short, the very first two commandments.
Saint Augustine puts it like this: "Pride about our good deeds is pointless. God has his own ideas regarding what is good and he does not always agree with us. If there is anything good about you, believe better things of others. This will keep you humble. It will not hurt you at all to consider yourself less righteous than others, but it will be disastrous for you to consider yourself better than even one person."
Thomas Kempis once wrote that to follow Christ, one must give up everything, especially oneself, and retain no trace of selfishness. Even after doing everything required of them, they must still consider it as nothing, admitting that they are merely ordinary servants. This humility is exemplified in the Gospel when it states, "When you have done everything you were told to do, say 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty'" (Luke 17:10).
This is the example that the saints followed, acting on the teachings of Christ. As a large family, we hold a special place in our prayers for saints such as Mary and Joseph who said yes to the Lord, and for the thousands of saints who have gone before us.
Death does not separate the dead from the living, for in God all that is good is very much alive. All that is good comes to us through Christ Jesus. The saints point to Jesus while deflecting any glory that may come their way, recognizing that all glory, honor, and righteousness belong to God alone. It is a powerful reminder that we too must step aside ourselves if only for a moment and follow their witness with humility and admiration.