This column comments occasionally on the canonization of saints because its importance reaches far beyond the devotional. When the church adds a deceased member’s name to the “list” of saints, it attests that he or she is in heaven and can be venerated by the universal church. At the same time it raises up the individual as a model of Christian discipleship for the living.
This latter point was underscored by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which declared that the saints “vividly” disclose God’s ”presence” and “face” to us, and are signs of the kingdom “to which we are powerfully attracted” (n. 50).
The hope is that large numbers of the laity can identify with, and then emulate, those whom the church canonizes as saints. Otherwise, the process yields little more than the assurance that a specific individual is in heaven, the granting of official permission for a liturgical commemoration, ordinarily the anniversary of their death, the calling of attention to the (usually small and unfamiliar) religious community which the new saint founded or with which she or he was identified and the promotion of the specific apostolates in which the newly canonized was involved while on earth.
The problem has been that, over the centuries, the church has drawn its candidates for canonization from too thin a slice of the Catholic population, namely priests, bishops, male and female religious, and lay persons who either remained virgins and celibates during their lifetime or, if married, entered a convent or founded a religious order after the death of their spouse. Very few married lay persons can readily identify with such Christian types.
One of John Paul II’s highest priorities was the cultivation of a vibrant Catholic spirituality, which is why he personally canonized more than 480 individuals during his 26 1/2 years in office and beatified many more than that. Alas, the overwhelming majority of his canonizations were of the traditional clerical and religious variety.
The relatively few lay persons canonized by John Paul II had been martyred for the faith in China, Vietnam, Japan and Korea, as well as in Spain during its 1930s civil war. To be sure, martyrs have always deserved the church’s greatest respect and honor, but only a minuscule number of Catholics will ever experience martyrdom in their lifetimes or even be at serious risk of it.
This pattern of canonizing clergy and religious has continued into the current pontificate of Benedict XVI, but it is not clear whether the procedures were initiated under the previous pope or the present one. The process ordinarily takes several years from beginning to end. Given the fact that Benedict XVI was elected just over a year ago, it seems more likely that we are still dealing with his predecessor’s list of candidates rather than his own.
In any event, the most recent lists of candidates for beatification (the step immediately preceding sainthood) and canonization do not indicate as yet a fundamental change in the previous pattern.
On June 26 Pope Benedict authorized Cardinal Jos√© Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to advance on the path to beatification one priest and four nuns, two of whom founded religious orders. Nearly 150 were attested as martyrs for the faith: 148 (mostly) male and female religious and one laywoman — all in the Spanish civil war — and one priest, martyred in 1964. The heroic virtue of a third group of candidates was also affirmed. They included three priests (two of whom founded religious orders), two nuns (one of whom founded a religious order), a Polish laywoman and a German layman.
Five days later, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would canonize four blesseds on Oct. 15: a bishop, a priest-founder of a religious community of women and two foundresses of communities of women religious. Among the latter is Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, who sponsor Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, Ind.
While their Indiana neighbors at the University of Notre Dame and elsewhere rejoice with them in the forthcoming canonization of their foundress and the first resident of Indiana to be so recognized, it remains the case that very few married lay persons will have anything in common with Mother Guerin or the many other priests and nuns on these recent lists, other than their humanity, their membership in the church and their desire to lead virtuous lives.
Those commonalities are surely significant, but they do not directly touch the experience of ordinary married Catholics with children and grandchildren.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.