Ever since the Second Vatican Council spoke of the “universal call to holiness,” there has been a move to recognize more lay men and women as saints, as models of sanctity for lay Catholics. Several contemporary lay women and men have already been raised to the “glories of the altar,” among them St. Gianna Molla (1922-62), an Italian mother who carried a child to term rather than consent to an abortion and died in the process. Others on their way include Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-25), the charismatic Italian social activist who said, “Charity is not enough; we need social reform.” In that same vein, the cause for canonization of Dorothy Day, the American-born co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has just been advanced. And in 2008, Louis and Zélie Martin, the devout parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, were beatified, a rare instance of a husband and wife recognized together.
But when it comes to recognizing saints, the church still tends to favor popes, bishops, priests and members of religious orders. In June Pope Benedict XVI released the latest list of 27 candidates for sainthood, which included martyrs in the Spanish Civil War, among them a bishop and 13 Daughters of Charity; an Austrian priest killed in Buchenwald; the Mexican foundress of a women’s religious order; an 18th-century Italian diocesan priest and a French Dominican priest who founded the Bethany community. While there are plenty of holy Fathers and Mothers on that list, where are the holy mothers and fathers?
Fifty years after the council, in the midst of the church’s continued invitations for laypeople to lead holy lives, why are there still relatively few role models for the laity? Surely there are many who fit the definition of holiness: men and women who, aware of God’s love for them, return that love through service to their neighbor, specifically in their humility, charity and self-sacrifice.
Though the logistics may be difficult, the church should find a way to recognize models of holiness in men and women who lived “ordinary” lives. These would include: someone other than a saint from the very earliest days of the church (like St. Joseph), someone who was not royalty (like St. Elizabeth of Hungary), a married person who did not found a religious order in later years (like St. Bridget of Sweden), a couple who did not initially plan to live as “brother and sister” while married (like Louis and Zélie Martin), someone who did not found a religious community or social movement (like Dorothy Day) and someone who did not die in terrible circumstances (like St. Gianna Molla).
While Catholics recognize that the canonized saint needs to have led a life of “heroic sanctity,” many lay Catholics long for someone they can emulate in their daily lives. Which raises a question: Who is holier—Mother Teresa or the church-going mother who for decades takes care of an autistic child? Pope John Paul II or the pious man who serves as a director of religious education while holding down two jobs to support his family? The answer: they are all saintly in their own ways. “Heroic sanctity” comes in many forms—and it includes both those whose faith inspires them to found a religious order and those whose faith enables them to care for a sick child for years on end.
Three factors frustrate the desire for more lay saints. The first is the persistent belief that ordination or taking religious vows represents a higher level of holiness than does, say, raising a child. But even the saints disagreed with this idea. “Holiness is not the luxury of a few,” said Mother Teresa. “It is a simple duty for you and for me.”
The second factor is the public nature of the lives of the priests and members of religious orders who are canonized. It is easier to see the personal impact of a founder or foundress than it is to know about a parent’s care for an autistic child. This kind of hidden lay holiness will be less likely to attract the devout simply because it is less well known. So, in the case of the ordinary layperson, the church’s requirement that a local devotion spring up around the person will be frustrated.
The third factor is the arduous, time-consuming and expensive canonization procedure, which only religious orders and dioceses have the financial resources and technical know-how to navigate. Not many children of holy parents can manage the complex process required by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Once the mother of the autistic child dies, who will advance her cause? Few might know of her holiness, yet her example might speak to more Catholics than even that of a pope.
If the church hopes to offer relevant models of holiness for laypeople, it is time to make the canonization process far more accessible and far less expensive for those who knew a holy husband, wife, mother, father, friend or neighbor.