Readings: What is A Saint and How Do We Talk with Them?

Couple pauses at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.

I spent Easter weekend at Georgetown, having acquired a great affection for the university and the city of Washington during the two years I spent there while working for my PhD at George Washington University and, later, when I wrote the biography of Eric Sevareid. Saturday I rented a bike to zoom along the Potomac Park, where I stumbled upon, to my delight, the Martin Luther King Memorial.

The statue looms enormous, more overwhelming than depicted, a crowd of maybe 100 gathered in front or moving through the three accompanying white mini-mountains shooting up around it. Two marble walls, each engraved with seven thrilling quotations, swoop up to King from either side. My favorite, from his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”


The audacity to believe!” And to act on that belief, no matter what the opposition. Isn’t that what sainthood is about? But saints are “holy.” Was King holy? Holiness is not a selfish preoccupation with the status of one’s soul (Harper Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 617). Holiness is one’s response to God’s love, which can take many forms —humility, love of neighbor or the promotion of a just social order. Surely King loved his fellow men and women enough to risk his life every time he stood up in public.

The media have been filled recently with the controversy over the combined canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II—the differences in their style, accomplishments, concept of the church and the exceptions to the rules made for both: Pope Benedict XVI started the canonization process for John Paul immediately, rather than wait the five required years, and Pope Francis, informed that John Paul was ready to go, moved John up front, although he lacked one of two required miracles. Furthermore, Pope John XXIII was much loved for his courage to initiate Vatican II and while John Paul II had a strong following for his “charism,” and opposition to the Soviet Union, while his opposition to Liberation Theology and his toleration of Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and a corrupt pedophile, disappointed many. (The best article on this is John Wilkins’ “The Odd Couple,” in Commonweal, 4/11).

The requirements for sainthood seem fluid. Basically it’s holiness plus two miracles, achieved through God’s intervention, to prove—apparently—that the proposed saint is in heaven. John Henry Newman, a convert once acclaimed for his brilliant defense of the church, had no miracles, and his corpse, far from being miraculously preserved, as is attributed to some saints, was just a handful of dust. The process is also very costly. Dorothy Day would not approve of her own cause because the money involved in making saints, she said, should go to the poor. Rev. Peter Gumpel, S.J., who administers Jesuit saint candidacies, told the Washington Post (4/26), we all believe in miracles, but, “the question is simply and purely, should we require the confirmation of miracles for saints?” My answer is, No.

I also suggest we have a moratorium on “making” saints for a while, until we have a common understanding of what we are trying to do. Ideally saints serve as teachers, men and women who by their everyday lives demonstrate “holiness.” By which we mean that they are so overwhelmed by God’s love for us that they respond not by preoccupation with their own perfection, but by love demonstrated in love of neighbor and promotion of social justice. To be the founder of a religious institution or movement, as Maciel demonstrates, is not enough; nor is it enough to be the center of a popular devotion. See historian Stafford Poole, C.M.’s article in Commonweal (6/14/02) on the alleged witness to the Virgin Mary’s appearance at Guadalupe: “Did Juan Diego Exist?” His answer is that the evidence says no.

One of my favorite theology textbooks when I was teaching was Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints, Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Crossroad 1999), short essays on a saint for every day, not all canonized and many non-Catholics, but each an admirable role model, courageous man or woman with whom we can identify, including: Galileo, Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Karl Rahner, S.J., Bach, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teihard de Chardin, S.J., Henry David Thoreau, John Howard Griffin, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Camus, Thomas Merton, Newman and King. Would it enhance their stature to be canonized? I doubt it. We can still pray to them as they are.

I think we can pray to all of these, just as we pray to—not for—our own departed loved ones and personal heroes. Frankly I do not imagine Heaven as a medieval royal court where God sits on a throne and we grovel before Him or plead with saints to intercede. Jesus told us that God is our Father, and we have always spoken to our fathers face to face. I have prayed for help to my own late brother David when I needed advice and to Robert F. Drinan, S.J., when I faced an obstacle while I was writing his biography. I didn’t ask for a miracle, just for some help. And help came. 

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Roberto Blum
4 years 8 months ago
I completely agree. We have to look at the saintliness of an individual's life "in toto." Miracles -- events that we cannot explain now -- can have no value in judging someone for canonization. Saints are models of christian life. JPII's life as a Supreme Pontiff cannot be an example for future popes nor for ordinary Christians or non-Christians.
David Pasinski
4 years 8 months ago
Perfectly said! Ellsberg's book is still my bedside reading as I think about all of these diverse individuals with the elusive traits of sanctity... most without the title and with human failings galore, but with an integrity of intention and some of those other graced virtues. Thank you!
Bill Mazzella
4 years 8 months ago
Ray, Like many other things, saints are a creation of the fourth century. Certainly there was honor for the apostles, especially Peter and Paul. But the stampede in in the fourth century onwards was prompted more by the Roman practice of Patron rather than solid gospel theology, In those days every town claimed to have the true body of Martin of Tours along with the original relic of the cross. This is the trouble when empire builders took over and when authority became more important than the spirit.What was always attributed to God: "He spoke and it was done", now was usurped by bishops and popes. The Councils became more important than the Beatitudes and the Christian life well lived was soon declared invalid if one did not adhere to what prelates said and wanted. While the Reformation was far from perfect, even today, it did seek to correct this questionable practice. But just as the Council of Trent voted no on the vernacular because it was a cry of the reformers, so did it continue the practice of the saints which they felt to do otherwise would encourage the reform which they considered a revolt. Martin Luther King did some oustanding deeds. But he did let his libido overcome his reason on many occasions. He never denied this to reporters who knew. But according to the practice of the time did not report about it. So the concept of the Holy Man or saints is deeply flawed. Really , some real scoundrels have been canonized. The practice really is used as a way to distance ourselves from the challenge of the cross so that we can say that we are not called to be saints. But we will get redemption because of the saints. A terrible avoidance of responsibility. . Centuries running. A moratorium is right. Now until the end of time. Chesterton was right that Christianity has not been tried. We can start with the Vatican. Rather than these constant pageantries which diminish the message of Christ.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 8 months ago
This is a strange article. Robert Drinan was a staunch political supporter of abortion, the ultimate child abuse, for most of his public career, even though he recognized it was infanticide ( Maybe, God will forgive him of that but to be such a promoter of killing children makes for a strange hero. Martin Luther King was a great political reformer and a good example for non-violent political change. But, his close friends said he was sleeping with a mistress the night before he was killed. And Galileo and Thoreau? Certainly I am for a moratorium on pretend saints. Why isn't JFK on the list? Or Abe Lincoln? Or anybody at all. And, surprise, surprise, Roberto likes these "saints." Take away the need for a holy life, or a holy end, and the need for the witness of miracles, and all you are left with is a popularity contest, or a beauty contest, and a badly chosen one at that. Madness! St. John Paul II, pray for us.


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