Why is Michael a saint?/The ‘poor in spirit’

Q. I am not a Christian, but I enjoy reading your column and learn a lot from it. I am hoping that you can explain why St. Michael the Archangel is regarded as a saint. I have always been under the impression that a saint is a deceased believer who is recognized by the Catholic Church after the process of canonization. But Archangel Michael has never been human, right? (Jefferson City, Missouri)

St. Michael’s
Chicago IL

A. In the contemporary church, what you have said is true: A saint is a believer who, after a lengthy investigation, is formally declared by the Vatican to have reached heaven and to be worthy of veneration. But in the early centuries, there was no such formal process.

The first saints were martyred for their faith during the Roman persecutions, and Christians began spontaneously to honor their memory and to commemorate annually the dates on which they had died. It was only in the 12th century, under Pope Alexander III, that the process of canonization became centralized in Rome.

St. Michael, as you point out, was never a human being. Like the other angels, he was created by God as a pure spirit — with intellect and will, but no physical body. The word “saint,” though, is derived from the Latin meaning “one who is holy,” and the holiness of Michael has long been recognized by the church.

Michael is one of the three angels mentioned by name in the Scriptures — the others being Raphael and Gabriel. In Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, Michael is portrayed as leading the faithful angels in defeating the hosts of evil and driving them out of paradise. He has thus been revered in Catholic tradition as the protector of the church. As early as the fourth century, Christian churches were dedicated to St. Michael, and since the ninth century his feast day has been celebrated in the church’s liturgy on September 29.

Q. One of the beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Does that mean those simple-minded people who don’t ask any questions? (Lake Monticello, Virginia)

A. I like it when people ask me about the beatitudes because I don’t think we focus enough on them. They are central to the lives of those who would try to follow Jesus.

If you were to ask Christians to name the Ten Commandments, most of us could list them; but if you asked those same Christians to list the Eight Beatitudes, we might not do as well. And yet the beatitudes are really the “Christian commandments.”

Most of the Ten Commandments given to Moses directed people what not to do — a sort of “least common denominator”; but the beatitudes tell us instead, in a positive way, what we should be spending our time doing — acting as peacemakers, showing mercy, hungering for justice, etc.

But to answer your question: No, to be poor in spirit does not mean to be simple-minded and unquestioning. It means not being attached to a lavish lifestyle and material wealth as the goal of human existence; but even more, it signifies an attitude — a conscious awareness of our need for God. We didn’t create ourselves, nor do we sustain ourselves in being. God does that.

Once, some years ago, someone asked Billy Graham, with regard to this particular beatitude, “Shouldn’t we strive to be rich in spirit, not poor?” And Graham suggested substituting in the text the word “humble” in place of “poor.” We must not be self-satisfied or proud of heart, he said, but instead recognize our own dependency, our weaknesses and our need for God’s continual forgiveness.

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.

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