Brought up in a non-critical Catholic atmosphere, as I was, does not foster objectivity. Most of us felt repugnance at the ascetic excesses of many saints and the agere contra attitude of Ignation piety but felt that saints were not ordinary people and that the normal standards did not apply. Such was the Absolute Majesty of the Transcendent God that were he to demand extraordinary ascetic practices and total devotion to the exclusion of all else – even natural ties and duties – who was to question it. And so Francis de Sales’ protégé, Jeanne de Chantal, steps over the pleading body of her young son to enter a contemplative convent. Similar examples abound. Such people were to be revered. In them, somehow, the unbridgeable gulf between us and the Transcendent God had been transcended. In them God had come close. If they were impelled by God to live apart, fast and scourge themselves who were we to question them. God was an unfathomable mystery and, like Job, it was not for us to assume that He should fit in with our expectations. 

Today all has changed. The exemplary saint is Mother Teresa, famous for her compassion for the poor and the dying and not for her austerities, nor for her mystical experiences. Formerly holiness had numinous connotations. A holy person was someone who had about them an aura of mystery, someone close to God, in touch with God, a person apart, not concerned with, or fitting in with, this world; a person who evoked awe, living on the threshold of the supernatural. The holiness of saints like Mother Teresa, Archbishop Romero and John XXIII is of a different order. The thing that strikes you is their selflessness, their warmth, but above all the humanity of their love for all they encounter. Holiness is expressed by love, as John pointed out all those years ago in his letters.