November can be a dreary month in these parts, a season of fierce winds and day-long rains.  Clumps of damp leaves plaster the streets and walkways.  Leafless maples and oaks raise their limbs to gray, lumpy skies like souls in agony.  Stripped of their green vestments, the mountains frown as if in mournful anticipation of winter.  As you can see, Your Excellency, the mere thought of November can steer even a poor scribbler toward thoughts poetical.

Of course, November also brings us All Saints’ Day, November 1, that feast when the Church celebrates Her saints, known and unknown, who are with God in His Heaven.  Sainthood, Your Excellency, is why I am writing to you.

Many people seem confused about saints these days.  When Time broke the story about Mother Teresa’s troubled interior life, commentators such as Christopher Hitchens used her as an example of a religious opportunist who soldiers on despite lost illusions.  Some of my acquaintances were angry with Mother Teresa, as if she had somehow fooled them.  When I mentioned the idea of “a real dark night of the soul,” a state of spiritual loneliness common to saints (and to the rest of us mere mortals as well), one of these friends snapped, “That’s why we have psychiatrists and Prozac.”

Other misconceptions about saints abound.  Whenever a certain Lutheran relative hears me mention a particular saint such as John of God (patron saint of booksellers, which I once was) or Elizabeth Ann Seton (a patron saint of teachers, which I now am), she goes ballistic, theologically speaking.  “We’re all saints!” she cries.  She refers to the New Testament passages in which the word saint is synonymous with Christian, but to insist so vehemently that all of us are saints sounds so, well, American to me, like saying all people are nice.  Others look for saints in dubious places.  Some have elevated Martin Luther King, Jr., Princess Diana, and Elvis Presley to sainthood.  One friend who enjoys his bourbon has taken for his patron saint the alcoholic Sebastian Flyte from Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  When I point out that Sebastian is a fiction, he simply ignores me, hoisting in benediction his glass of bourbon, Sprite, and water—a concoction known here as a Presbyterian.  (Is there, I wonder, any drink called a Roman Catholic, Your Excellency?)

Even more befuddling to many of us is the question of how to become a saint.  Some seem to find good deeds a necessary part of sainthood, yet, if working in soup kitchens and staying off the sauce were routes to sanctity, then every Methodist I ever knew (back when I myself followed Wesley) would be canonized at death.  “Not to be a saint—this is the only tragedy”: So wrote Leon Bloy, and yet no one can explain precisely how to become a saint.  We know how to make doctors and lawyers, plumbers and politicians, but there are no clear-cut paths, no required studies, no diplomas for becoming a saint.

For many of us older folks it is, I suspect, a point of too little, too late: This foggy journey to sainthood seems arduous beyond contemplation.  Our will is weak; our predilection for sin, strong.  Even our mild vices—drinking a bit too much, gossip, that extra helping of turkey—would necessarily have to yield to painful virtue: a deeper prayer life, works of mercy, frequent confession, daily attendance at Mass.  Although several of my friends believe that they are bound for Heaven simply because they are good, such certainty seems little more than wishful thinking.  Most likely, we will need many prayers to put a smile on Saint Peter’s face.  Thank heavens for the gift of Purgatory.

Young people are a different matter altogether.  Contrary to what many adults believe, Your Excellency, young people today want challenges.  When asked why she had chosen her particular path, Mother Teresa famously replied, “I wanted a hard life.”  (By holding her far from the celestial embrace for which she longed, God arguably granted her request.)  Many young people I know also want physical, mental, and spiritual challenges.  Instead, our society gives them condoms, drugs, and electronic toys.  Our own confirmandi want to know God and how to live a life of holiness, and what do we offer in return?  Rock-music retreats, balloons, goofball games, and sappy textbooks.  Will none of our religious educators ever understand how much young people despise this sort of trash?  They ask for meat, and we give them pap.

Why not give them meat?  Why not at least show them the tools that foster sainthood?  Why not, in fact, crank up a diocesan boot camp where young people from the ages of 14 to 22 could go for two-week sessions throughout the summer, where they could learn the techniques of prayer, fasting, physical and spiritual hardiness, and acts of sacrifice?

Some of our young, tough diocesan priests along with members of certain religious orders—the Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Nashville Dominicans have both operated similar camps—could staff the camp.  They could act as the spiritual equivalents of a Marine Corps drill instructor.  Camp counselors would be graduates of the camp.  This cadre would all work together to train up their charges.  Daily prayers might include the liturgy of the hours, confession, spiritual recollections, an hour of silence spent before the Blessed Sacrament.  (Do you know, Your Excellency, how much silence terrifies our young people?)  Our budding saints could learn the practice of fasting; they could endure physical hardships.  Former societies ranging from the American Sioux to Ganges holy men to Carmelite monks understood the efficacy of physical suffering and hardship in regard to faith and prayer.

We don’t need any more confirmation classes going on bogus retreats or playing childish games.  We do need tough young Catholics.  We need a Marine Corps of Catholics who can individually combine love with will to bring about their own sainthood and to make saints of those around them.

From the Halls of Montezuma, Your Excellency, and wishing you a splendid All Saints’ Day,

Joe Ecclesia