During his recent visit to Croatia, the Pope addressed a crowd of young Croatians at a prayer vigil in Zagreb. Among his words to them that evening, he emphasized one phrase in particular which he must strongly believe that the youth of today need to hear, as he also chose it to be the message for the upcoming World Youth Day. “Dear young people,” he told them, “If you are rooted in Christ, you will fully become the person you are meant to be.”
“The person you are meant to be.” This phrase is steeped in deeper meaning than it might at first appear. Young people often struggle with painful questions of identity; during adolescence, they feel a deep desire to discover and cement their personality as something distinctly their own. They have an innate sense that their personhood must be not only uniquely valuable, but also definitely valued by someone else. Without being “rooted in Christ,” without a solid spiritual foundation and guidance, they will turn desperately to what guidance they are given: the voice of the world. This is why many young women struggle with anorexia, why young men join gangs, why the mandates of fashion convince so many young people to all adopt the same style of shoes and haircut and listen to the same music.
But the reality is that outside of Christ the human soul loses its true identity. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the master-tempter Screwtape comments to his devil-nephew Wormwood on how vice and virtue affect a soul’s personhood: “When [God] talks of [humans] losing their selves,” says Screwtape, “He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality . . . when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever” (Letter XIII).
Even a cursory view of humanity illustrates this. Who are the most unique persons in all human history? The answer is not always the most famous people in history. World conquerors, for instance, all blend into a certain mold; “a lust for power united with extraordinary military genius” equally describes both Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar. A puzzling amount of renowned artists and musicians seem to have had the same sort of tragic personal life: torn by infidelity and scarred by sin. Even the villains of history aren’t unique. When they are more evil, they are less original, and begin to all fit the same pattern: the horrid shape of the demonic. Hitler was more unique as a German schoolboy playing games than he was as the Fuhrer; Robespierre, a brilliant student with a love for Cicero, was more himself before the Revolution. It is when they became evil that they lost their identity and became uncannily like one another: corrupted mass-murderers exercising worldly power to persecute others.
The most unique persons in history are the saints. The word “saint” may draw to mind images of monks and nuns kneeling on clouds, in an aura of light, and gazing upward with saccharine smiles on their faces. But saints aren’t like that. Saints, in conforming themselves to Christ, don’t become all the same. They each become distinctly themselves. They become, as the Pope said, the person they were meant to be. The fiery, down-to-earth Teresa of Avila spent her life traveling through Spain, facing opposition and disappointments, to dramatically reform the Carmelite order. Gianna Molla was a doctor, wife, and mother who gave her life to save her child. Thomas More was a lawyer executed for refusing to deny Christ on a point of law; Junipero Serra traversed the California wilderness to bring the universal law of the love to those who did not know Christ. Edith Stein sought God through philosophy; St. Isidore the Farmer sought God while humbly plowing his farm.
These people are unique, they are fascinating, they are authentic–they are who they were meant to be, because they were truly rooted in Christ. Vice destroys our human identity. Virtue completes it. Pulling away from God robs us of our only source of true individuality. Like prisoners in a dungeon, starved and hidden away from the sunlight, souls that feed on sin alone begin to all look alike: malnourished, ill at heart, sad, bitter, even if they are surrounded by worldly glory and pleasure. But God designed each soul to have its own special character. A soul who embraces Christ embraces the fullness of his own identity, because God gives that soul the grace of becoming what His plan always intended him to be: a saint.