It might sound scandalous to say that saints are IN or OUT of style, given that the world “style” has taken on rather secular and even rakish meaning. It seems to suggest that movements or people have become popular by saying the right things, wearing the appropriate clothing, associating with the movers and shakers of society.
Whereas a saint is someone who is other-worldly, disinterested in transient affairs, and focused on “things of God”, which are largely elsewhere than here and now. And so, if such a one is a woman, she wears a long, sweeping dress, some kind of veil for a head-covering, and plain, unadorned faces and hair styles. And men too are pictured in black robes (no levis), with a full head of hair (no baldness or crew cuts) and usually good eyesight (very few wearing glasses). In such ways saints are set aside, apart from the crowd, and presumably from its viewpoints and value systems.
In this way saints transcend time and place. They can’t be identified or localized, lest too much similarity be found with the rest of us, jeopardizing their status as saints. Two things are wrong with this picture: it is too critical about ourselves, and too unrealistic about the saints. Saints come and go, not only in terms of life-spans, but also in terms of pertinence and relevance for us in the church of today. For men and women are raised to “the honors of the altar” by reason of the example they provide for other members of the church. Their lives are honored for being “useful” to the rest of us. So, in this day and age, the church doesn’t propose a hermit or an anchorite who lived on bread and water in the solitude of the desert, as a model of holiness for us and as a way God would have us live. For it would be out of kilter with what we need to live as Christians in the contemporary world.
Admittedly, there is a largely unused liturgical book called The Martyrology containing hundreds, even thousands, of saints’ names, the vast majority of whom we have never heard. And Butler’s Lives of the Saints has much the same impact on us. For saints are creations of the church at a given time and place to help the rest of us, showing a pathway along which to move on our way to God. So she looks over a variety of candidates, possibly contemporaries, who have caught her attention, and she picks and chooses certain ones meeting her interest in inspiring and motivating the rest of us.
There are exceptions to this. Francis of Assisi seems to be a perennial. He is a saint for all seasons. The Little Flower holds out promise of being an enduring model for years to come. But our own Passionist St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, canonized by Pope Benedict XV just a few years ago (1920) and declared Patron of Youth, while extremely popular among young people at the time, is now a largely forgotten saints (except for his shrine in Italy). Other young men and women have, since then, caught the church’s attention, and she now holds them up before our eyes as models.
So saints, for the most part, come and go. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is encouraging to realize that the church has such a treasury of outstanding men and women that she can constantly call to our attention as examples for our lives.