Speaker, author and counselor Stephen Binz’s Arkansas home had been on the market for more than seven months when, in desperation, he remembered something his real-estate agent had told him: Many people trying to sell their houses bury statues of St. Joseph upside down in their yards as a way of asking for his help.
With nowhere else to turn, Binz bought a statue of St. Joseph, turned him upside down and buried him in the yard. His house sold within a week — to a man named Joseph.
Binz is not alone in looking heavenward for help with earthly problems. All around the world, Catholics pray daily to a host of saints, many of whom have become patrons in specific areas. People place statues or medals of St. Christopher in their vehicles to protect them while traveling and ask St. Anthony of Padua for help finding lost things. Locally, about 300 people filled the pews of Gates’ St. Jude the Apostle Church during each day of an Oct. 20-28 nine-day novena to St. Jude, patron of seemingly impossible causes.
The litany of the saints has swelled by 476 members during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, according to the official Vatican Web site, and the Oct. 19 beatification of Mother Teresa drew even more attention to saints and the canonization process.
St. John’s Religious Shop, operated by Spencerport’s St. John the Evangelist Parish, carries medals, holy cards and books about more than 70 patron saints, with St. Joseph, St. Jude, St. Christopher and St. Michael the Archangel taking honors as the store’s top sellers, according to Barbara DiVincenzo, store manager. Many people, she said, also come in looking for medals of St. Peregrine Laziosi, the patron saint of cancer patients, and St. Lucy, the patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble.
Are such petitions to the saints always acts of prayer, or do they sometimes border on superstition? This is the question Binz addressed in his book, St. Joseph, My Real Estate Agent.
“I think a lot of people get stuck in the superstition,” Binz remarked. “I think we’re called by our Catholic faith to go further than that.”
In the book, Binz recalls his early resistance to the idea of burying a St. Joseph statue, which he considered superstitious and crude. Once he grudgingly accepted the idea, however, he really began to think about Joseph, and the trials and tribulations of his life with Mary and Jesus. The more he thought, the more Joseph became less of a legendary figure to him and more of a real man.
As a result, Binz said, he developed a relationship with Joseph, which shifted the statue-burying ritual from the realm of superstition into that of prayer. The relationship, he said, is more important than which corner of the yard a statue is buried in or whether the statue is upside down. To begin a relationship with a particular saint, Binz suggested reading a biography about the saint’s life to learn what they were like while they were on earth.
Father Michael Volino, parochial vicar of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Greece, said many people choose a favorite or patron saint based on their identification with the saint’s characteristics, traits, hobbies or occupations. Father Volino says he identifies with Blessed Miguel Prosome, who is on his way to becoming a saint. Blessed Miguel Pro, a Mexican martyr who died in 1927, enjoyed playing the guitar, teaching and making people laugh — all things Father Volino said he can identify with.
“He was ordinary, and then there’s that heroic extraordinary courage that he received from the grace of God,” Father Volino said, referring to the martyr’s strong faith even in the face of death.
Critics of Catholicism have accused Catholics of worshipping saints, which would violate the first commandment prohibition against idolatry. This is a misperception, Father Volino said.
“The saints are not magicians or wizards,” he said. “We should see them as friends, as people we can approach, not distant people who live in the clouds. They do not take anything away from worship to Christ or the Trinity. I think they draw us ever closer to Christ.”
He likened the statue of a saint to a picture of a beloved friend or family member who has passed away. A person might display such a picture, and even touch or talk to it sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the person is praying to their late friend or relative, he said.
“It just helps you physically, spiritually and emotionally get in touch with that person,” Father Volino said.
Binz agreed, saying in his book that a crucial part of devotion to a saint is asking the saint to pray for the one still on earth, since the saint already is in heaven with God. One element of devotion to St. Joseph, he wrote, is asking him to pray for those on earth.
Saints can also provide examples for people struggling to live out their faith in today’s world, noted Father Sebastian Falcone, president emeritus and professor of biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
“I think we look to them because we always look to those who set a pattern of excellence. They have faced pretty much the same trials and tribulations as we do, and have made a splendid success of it. They’re worthy of imitation,” Father Falcone said.
Another popular Catholic devotional practice is the novena, through which people offer intentions every day for nine days to Mary, other saints or a particular aspect of the person or mystery of Christ, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Father Volino said the novena is tradition dating back to the time of Jesus and should not be dismissed as superstitious.
“It reminds me of the period of waiting of the Apostles and Mary for Pentecost,” he said. “That was the first novena, and that’s where novenas came from. I see the value behind bringing your petitions each day through the intercessions and prayers of a particular saint,” Father Volino said.
Father Falcone said novenas are not superstitious in themselves, but said their focus should be on prayer, not on the number nine.
“Once we start getting into the mathematic aspect of practices, we need to be sure that the math doesn’t overtake the intentions of the heart. When mathematics begin to take over the spirit of piety, we need to feel it’s not genuinely an expression of piety,” he said.
Both priests said the intention of the person engaging in a devotional practice is what determines whether it is superstition or prayer.
Saints are often subject not only to superstition, but also to myths and rumors. Many people believe, for example, that St. Christopher is no longer a saint because his July 25 feast day was removed from the church’s universal calendar in 1969. In a 1996 article, Catholic News Service explained that St. Christopher and “dozens of others” were stricken from the worldwide calendar in a reform designed to ensure that events in the life of Christ were not overshadowed.
“At the time of the ‘downgrading,'” CNS reported, “the Vatican went to great pains to explain that the saints involved were still saints and still worthy of veneration and emulation.”
Father Volino agreed that Catholics today can learn from the story of St. Christopher, just as Jesus often taught his followers using stories and parables.
And although the volume of canonizations in the last 25 years has led some Catholics to believe the canonization process is being taken too lightly, with the potential to exacerbate superstitions surrounding the saints, Father Volino said he is glad the pope has canonized so many people.
“I think it’s a wonderful way of providing us more role models and examples of faith, which is much-needed today,” he said. “It helps us to see that we can all achieve that sanctity, and to see that eternity is within our grasp.”