In his 2018 apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), Pope Francis speaks of the holiness God bestows on ordinary people—parents, grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates, and friends who, through their daily actions of love or quiet suffering, serve as models in life—calling these people the “saints next door.”
Milton Javier Bravo, a Catholic Millennial from Madison, Wisconsin who is a theologian and vice president for mission, values, and inclusion at Edgewood College, says Pope Francis’ encouragement to Christians to look to people around them as “witnesses” of faith feels natural, particularly when it comes to his grandmother. Her life of prayer and her “giving of her life, her time, her wisdom, her talents, her everything to as big a family as my dad had,” Bravo says, is what he remembered when he read the pope’s message.
“For me, the idea of holiness . . . is this image of my grandmother, sitting by her bedside, praying the rosary,” he says.
Ordinary “saints” may never be beatified or canonized, but their love and support of their families and daily perseverance make them part of the “middle class of holiness,” the pope writes. Younger Catholics are running with the idea of sainthood posed by Pope Francis: examining what holiness means, who’s considered a saint, and how to follow that person, says Franciscan Father of the Atonement Jim Gardiner of Washington, D.C. It’s in this “middle class” of holiness, as well as in contemporary figures such as Blessed Carlo Acutis, that Millennial and Gen Z Catholics are finding contemporary models of sainthood.
In officially recognized models such as Blessed Carlo Acutis, Gen Z and Millennial Catholics see the holiness to be found in an ordinary person—one whose world, life, and circumstances are not that much different from their own.
While Bravo names his grandmother as one of his personal models of sainthood, he, like many Catholics of his generation, is also drawn in by the life of Acutis, who used his computer programming skills to catalogue eucharistic miracles from around the world on a website he created.
This 15-year-old “computer geek,” is now one step away from official sainthood. Acutis was beatified in 2020 and is lauded for his use of technology to evangelize. He died in 2006 from leukemia.
After beatification, Acutis needs to have a miracle attributed to him in order to become an official saint. But on TikTok, many young Catholics already see him as such. Many share short videos, photos, and inspirational quotes attributed to Acutis, often called the “internet saint.” Prayer cards with his image depict him in jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie or a polo shirt, a backpack around his shoulders or sometimes holding a laptop in his hands.
Videos of Acutis’ transparent tomb show the teenager, also called the “computer geek who took the highway to heaven,” buried in sneakers, jeans, and a sports jacket. His mix of technology and faith is a boon in a time when Millennials and Gen Z Catholics are spreading and sharing faith practices, evangelization, and the gospel via social media, says Gardiner.
“They’re open to a lot more things online, how to use the internet [for evangelization], so much so that people joke about these kids being in church with the [smartphone] by their knees when an irrelevant homily is being preached,” he says.
Given the isolation many younger Catholics experienced during the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, some are now looking to various contemporary models of holiness to figure out how they will proceed in their lives of faith. And perhaps that’s where Acutis’ influence can play a part, Gardiner says.
“They got used to going to Mass with the bathrobe and a coffee cup,” he says. “You can do it by Zoom, but there’s something about being physically present.”
There are currents among some younger Catholics that have recently equated holiness, Gardiner says, with attending the Mass in Latin and wearing lace head coverings. While prayer and contemplation are important, he says, it’s also important that faith be guided toward action in the world. That’s something even the saints, from the most ancient to the more contemporary, embrace, he says, along with the idea that salvation is an act of community, not something carried out alone.
“What do we hear the Spirit saying about how to act with one another?” he says. “How should we be looking and helping one another?” In sharing and listening to others, particularly to the vulnerable, “it empowers us to make things around us different,” much in the way Jesus practiced, Gardiner says.
A YouTube song promoting the recent Spanish-language movie about Carlo Acutis’ life, Heaven Can’t Wait, depicts scenes in his life that are well-documented: his deep life of prayer and devotion before the Eucharist that also gave rise to his taking part in acts of service, such as offering food to a man experiencing homelessness.
The way Gardiner sees it, some of the attraction toward Acutis, in some circles, comes from his devotion to the Eucharist. However, as the teenager showed, eucharistic devotion has to be accompanied by action toward others and by a devotion to build community, too.
“I identify with Blessed Carlo and more of the ‘faith in action’ model of holiness,” says Millennial Catholic Melissa Altman, a Maryknoll lay missioner who is originally from Pennsylvania but now lives in El Salvador. She and her husband moved their children, a 3-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, from New York to the countryside of El Salvador in 2014, and she doesn’t regret it. “Faith in action is one of the biggest reasons we decided to move to El Salvador and bring our kids with us,” she says.
Altman shares a recent experience her daughter had that reminded her of the importance of faith in action and of Acutis’ care for others. Her daughter saw some classmates bullying another student, and she and another friend chose to stand up for that student. “So much of the world is more interested in ‘me, me, me,’ ” Altman says. “But we’re giving our children an opportunity to say no to that and showing them that to be Christian means that you have to stand up for someone or sit next to someone who’s alone in the cafeteria.”
For Bravo, Acutis provides a model of how to take the example of holiness found in the lives of contemporary Catholics and turn it into action outside the walls of a church. To sustain this action, he relies on praying the Liturgy of the Hours; meditating, which he also teaches other young Catholics to do; and engaging the “Catholic imagination” to ponder, as Pope Francis has asked: How can I create places that are welcoming in a way that Jesus would have done? Who is my neighbor? And what’s my social responsibility to those I encounter on the road?
Altman and other Catholics have found answers to these questions in the four U.S. Catholic churchwomen, including two fellow Maryknoll missionaries, who were killed in El Salvador in 1980, where they were serving during a civil war.
“The four churchwomen were huge role models for me. I read about them, how they were with the people, how they accompanied the people, how they laughed with the people,” says Altm an, who works with a cooperative for women in Zaragosa, El Salvador, where two of the women lived. “When I struggle, when I feel less confident in what I do here, I often think of them and their work and the way they are considered saints for Salvadorans. For me, the way they were missioners here, it just connects so much for me.
I challenge myself every day to live more simply, to enter in and immerse in the culture, and to allow the people to teach me the way the people taught them, in the exact same way.”
Gardiner says younger Catholics desire a more engaged model of holiness that reaches beyond the parish. He praises groups such as Franciscan Mission Service that, while still embracing the spirituality of 12th- and 13th-century saints such as St. Francis and St. Clare, have found ways to appeal to younger generations looking for a path to sainthood in a contemporary world.
The radicalness of the past that the Franciscan saints embraced, says Elizabeth Hughes, executive director of the Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C., is a message that appeals across the generations.
“Their example of courage and humility of compassion, the way they went against the norms . . . they were radical and countercultural in their simplicity and faith and that’s a similar call to us,” Hughes says. Though it seems like a message tough to hear in a culture permeated by materialism such as that of the United States, some young Catholics are attracted to the invitation “to embrace something the world doesn’t always embrace: humility and compassion,” she adds.
It was attractive enough for Altman, who embraced the “radical” idea of Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke with her move to El Salvador, “literally putting ourselves where we believed God wants us to be,” she says.
“It’s holy to be able to say and do the right thing for another person. Those kinds of things, I feel they happen every day here. It’s even more pronounced because it’s a different reality here,” Altman says.
Bravo says that for him, as a Millennial, a big influence on holiness has come from the leader of the church who took on the name and spirit of the medieval St. Francis but who has shaped the contemporary way of thinking about holiness for many young Catholics in the last 10 years: Pope Francis.
“I think Pope Francis has offered another way of living our Christian vocation in the world, one that builds bridges, one that enters into dialogue, one that is not about winning the argument or trying to impose an ideology on the other, but is really about an encounter with the truth, and the truth is ultimately a person, and that person is Christ,” Bravo says. “That has given me an idea of holiness. . . . It has resonated with a lot of people my age and people that I minister to.”
Bravo also has found great inspiration on holiness in the pope’s Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), his third encyclical published in 2020 and his development of the parable of the Good Samaritan, where despite the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews, a Samaritan ultimately saves a Jewish traveler.
“When Pope Francis wrote Fratelli Tutti, I loved what he did with that parable,” Bravo says. “We’re constantly comfortable asking the question, ‘Who’s my neighbor?’ When we think about holiness, when we think about the experience of Christianity, to love God above all things, to love the enemy as you love yourself, this parable always puts that question on its head. Who am I called to be a neighbor to? What is my social responsibility to those on the road, the wounded, the less fortunate?”
Like many of the pope’s teachings, Bravo says the 86-year-old pontiff has been a great influence because of how he’s able to point toward the path to holiness with modern and relevant examples. And he, too, has experienced being downtrodden and the miracles that happen when others stop long enough to care for someone who needs it, much in the way the Samaritan stopped to save his Jewish neighbor.
“Pope Francis’ words to those on the margins, those on the periphery—‘What is my social responsibility? Who am I called to be a neighbor to?’—have always stayed with me,” Bravo says. “I’m an immigrant from Ecuador. My family came in the 1990s. We had nothing. We went through all those transitions as immigrants. We had many people who took it upon themselves to lend a hand at church, a parish in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. They were teachers, neighbors. Somebody gave of their time and had the willingness to give a hand as we transitioned. Charity begets charity, love begets love, the acts of kindness, acts of love, the acts of self-giving, continue and perpetuate more acts of love, more acts of giving.”
For Bravo, that giving back includes being outspoken in defense of immigrants and of the marginalized, calling for the implementation of Catholic social teaching in parishes he attends or institutions where he works, writing or speaking on panels against injustice, and following the path set out by the pope.
Although it’s a lot to juggle in addition to his roles as a husband and father, it’s something he says would be difficult to do if he didn’t also devote a certain amount of time to prayer—something he encourages among his peers and in those to whom he ministers.
“For me, the word catholic, in addition to meaning universality, also means ‘toward the wholeness,’ ” he says.
Bravo says he stays true to the practices he learned early on at his grandmother’s bedside, especially now that it’s his turn to find a path toward holiness in the modern world.
“For me, spending time praying in front of the tabernacle, praying the Liturgy of the Hours . . . all of that informs and allows me to contemplate the word of God so that way I can share the fruits of that contemplation with the world,” he says. “In other words, it doesn’t just live inside the church structure, but it’s the fruit that’s developed out of that contemplation and prayer.”
This article also appears in the May 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 5, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Massimigliano Migliorato/CPP / Polaris/Newscom