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Drew ChristiansenOctober 29, 2007
Westminster Abbey 20th Century Martyrs (Flickr)Westminster Abbey 20th Century Martyrs (Flickr)

For some time, Anglican churches have been expanding their calendars of saints to include notable religious leaders and thinkers who are not, and probably would not be, officially designated as saints by the Catholic Church. The Church of England's calendar, for example, includes great leaders like William Wilberforce (an opponent of the slave trade), Bartolomeo de las Casas (a Dominican defender of Native Americans), C. S. Lewis (an apologist), Florence Nightingale (a nurse and social reformer) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a theologian and Hitler-resister).

The list is replete with poets like John Donne, George Herbert and Christina Rosetti. It also contains many Catholic saints of recent vintage, like the anti-British Joan of Arc, and post-Reformation Catholics, like Philip Neri, Francis de Sales and John Bosco. With the inclusion of figures like John Henry Newman and Charles de la Foucauld, moreover, it even anticipates the official Catholic canonization process.

In recent years we have also seen books, like Robert Ellsbergs All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Other Witnesses for Our Time (Orbis, 1997) and My Life With the Saints, by James Martin, S.J. (Loyola 2006), that mix the lives of saints with those of uncanonized figures. And modern-day icons have also proved highly popular, like those produced by Bridgebuilding Icons of Burlington, Vt., which depict images of saints not well known today, like Aelred of Rievaulx, as well as highly popular but not yet canonized saints like Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day.

Martyrial Ecumenism

Even official Catholic observances have shared in this trend. During the Jubilee of 2000 Pope John Paul II chose to honor Protestant as well as Catholic martyrs of the 20th century as a matter of common witness. In a 1995 visit to Slovakia for the beatification of three Catholic martyrs, he acknowledged Protestants executed by Catholics in the Counter-Reformation:

How can we fail to acknowledge, for example, the spiritual greatness of twenty-four members of the evangelical churches who were killed at Presov? To them and to all who accepted suffering and death out of fidelity to the dictates of their conscience the church gives praise and expresses admiration.

To underscore his words, John Paul also paid silent homage to these martyrs at a monument to their memory in the city square of Presov. Some have referred to this as John Pauls martyrial ecumenism. Indeed, in his address on the occasion he declared that the witness of Christian martyrs of all denominations in the 20th century is a heritage which speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division. The ecumenism of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith is the most convincing of all; to the Christians of the 21st century it shows the path to unity.

These developments in liturgy, devotional reading, popular piety and official ecumenism suggest a desire to honor a wider range of Christians and religious leaders of other traditions than any traditional martyrology or calendar of saints does. The existing official collections, even when expanded to include more lay people, married people and non-Europeans, still do not honor the many men and women who have nurtured our faith, witnessed in an eminent way to the Gospel or strengthened the life of the church.

Martyrs were the earliest saints, and martyrologies like the listing in the Roman Canon were the earliest lists of saints. Memories of such sacrifices are important in the formation of Christians and of the Christian community. They keep us mindful of the value of our faith. As long as we recall our martyrs, taking up the cross remains more than a scriptural metaphor for enduring the little inconveniences of life. Believers learn that witnessing to the Gospel has been personally costly and that, whatever the security of our local church today, we ultimately live in a vale of tears.

As Peter Brown relates in The Cult of the Saints (Univ. Chicago, 1980) and as every reader of Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael mysteries knows, the cult of the saints that originated with the veneration of martyrs' remains brought standing to the community and locale associated with their lives, their sufferings and their miracles. Today as well, a canonization of Opus Dei's Josémaria Escrivá or Mother Teresa of Calcutta lends legitimacy and prestige to their followers, validating their styles of spirituality and the distinctive charisms of their foundations. The teachings of theologians and the writings of mystics also receive greater standing when their authors are publicly honored as saints. In the church's liturgy, official recognition also attests to the intercessory power of the saint.

Models of Holiness

The first Western saint who was neither a martyr nor a confessor (someone who suffered imprisonment and torture for the faith) was St. Martin of Tours, a soldier convert who became a monk, bishop and missionary. The pre- and post-Vatican II sacramentaries recognize a variety of saints: doctors (that is, teachers), pastors, kings and queens, virgins and religious, missionaries and so on. In our own day, a principal motive for naming new saints has been to provide accessible models of the Christian life. That is why Pope John Paul II was set on canonizing so many lay people and people from a wide range of nationalities. He canonized 483 people and beatified more than 1,300, more than all who had been so recognized between the the Council of Trent and the beginning of his pontificate.

In his book The Catholic Heritage (Crossroad, 1985), Lawrence Cunningham has provided historical surveys of different types of Christians: soldiers, theologians, mystics, monks, reformers and social workers, to name a few. The different kinds of exemplary Christians suggest how rich the company of saints is. The terminology of sanctity keeps expanding even for martyrs. People now speak of martyrs for nonviolence, martyrs of charity (like Maximilian Kolbe, who was killed in place of an intended victim) and martyrs for human dignity (like Archbishop Romero and Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala, who were killed for their defense of human rights). The Jesuit sacramentary contains prayers for victims of Christian disunity.

Sanctity as Conversion

In an earlier book, The Meaning of Saints (Harper &Row 1980), Cunningham proposed that the exemplary character of sainthood is the most important consideration for people today. That is not to dismiss the intercessory role or the place of the miracles, but to say that saints are of greatest interest to us as models of discipleship. No devotion to the saints is more acceptable to God, Erasmus wrote, than the imitation of their virtues. Do you want to honor St. Francis? Then give away your wealth to the poor, restrain your evil impulses, and see in everyone you meet the image of Christ.

Cunningham refers to secular saints–men or women of no evident faith or even professed nonbelievers who possess such integrity of life, such uncompulsive and tolerant clarity of vision and such subordination of their own interests to the service of humanity that the only word that comes close to describing them is saint. While not Christian (in The Catholic Heritage he calls them outsiders), they appear to others to be Christlike. As an example he cites Dr. Rieux, the protagonist in Albert Camus's novel The Plague. I have known individuals who, while their lack of faith puzzled me, led lives of such goodness that, for lack of another word, they could only be described as holy.

The phenomenon of the secular saint prompts one to ask, what is sanctity? In general, I would suggest, holiness consists in integrity of life, such a thoroughgoing goodness that it seems to exceed all deliberate human effort. For that reason, even incidental flaws in ones biography may raise questions about an individual's holiness. Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a French soldier of fortune turned desert solitary, inspired several distinctive religious congregations of Little Brothers and Sisters and is nearly universally admired, but the fact that he supplied information on German troop movements in Africa to his French countrymen during the First World War is thought to have impeded for many years his march to canonization.

A Test of Orthodoxy?

There is a canard that if you anticipate being canonized (or being made a bishop), you should commit nothing to writing. For a confessional memoir or a theological doubt put in print is likely to hold up ones process. In my view, such impediments are secondary. During the Reformation, Brad Gregory explains in Salvation at Stake (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), a virtuous life over time and a courageous, holy death were eventually devalued as tests of martyrdom, and orthodoxy became the ultimate test of a true martyr. At other times, however, suspicions of heresy were no bar to sainthood. Some of the positions of St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, were formally condemned in his day; and more recently we have Pope John Paul honoring the witness of Protestant martyrs of the Reformation. What really is at stake in naming saints, it seems to me, is the holiness of a life. How thoroughly converted was a person?

Christians may be admirable for a variety of qualities and still be flawed. St. Jerome, for example, appears to me to be a saint by virtue of the Mediterranean big man theology: if you are a larger-than-life personality with enough devoted followers and powerful connections, on your death you are named a saint. Despite all his learning, his devotion to Scripture and holy places, as well as his austerities, Jerome was irascible, ever ready to engage in controversy. Except for the church's tradition, it would be very hard for me to think of him as a saint. As I see it, sanctity involves a completeness of conversion that Jerome, with his tempestuous temperament, did not exhibit (See John W. Donohue, Holy Terrors,America, 5/13/1995).

We can identify other saintly figures with possible flaws. Mother Teresa, despite her service of the poor, was criticized by Christopher Hitchens and others for her refusal to engage issues of justice. We might also consider Reinhold Niebuhr, as influential a theologian as we had in 20th-century America and a thinker from whom we still learn. One of the great puzzles of Niebuhr's life, however, is how with every shift of his political ideas and commitments, he turned his back on his old friends. In that respect, there seems to have been something hard in him that was neither humane nor holy.

Or think of the proponents of nonviolence whose anger against the military or adherents of the just war theory mars their commitment to peace. Christianity is the central fact in the lives of all these Christians, but their lives are flawed in this respect: certain dimensions of their personalities have not been converted. They are saints in the generic sense that they belong among those who have been saved by Christ; they model certain Christian virtues. They may have made great contributions to the life of the church, but their sanctification still seems lacking in some significant way.

Neurotic Saints

This is not to say that flawed people cannot become recognized saints. Saints have their faults. John Berchmans, one of the Jesuit boy saints, quipped that his greatest cross was the common life. (Todays Jesuits say his brothers probably felt the same way about John.) We all are sinners, but the notion of sanctity involves such thoroughgoing conversion that Christ shines through despite our faults and weaknesses.

Are there neurotic saints? I think so. St. Francis of Assisi was not called pazzo, crazy, for nothing. But whatever great things we may have done, whatever little way we may have followed, or whatever our failings, the final test is whether others can perceive that we are new men and women in Christ. Two of the Jesuit North American martyrs, Jean de Brébeuf and Noel Chabanel, illustrate the point.

Brébeuf was a hearty Norman peasant who could best his Native American captors in paddling a canoe or playing their games. He was generally admired and so brave in facing death that his slayers cut out his heart and ate it in testimony to his courage. Chabanel, by contrast, was an aristocrat who felt out of place among the tribes. Everything about their life grated on him, and he acutely feared torture and death, but he too is venerated as a saint. Even today, Brébeuf is the more appealing character; but because Chabanel endured his life and death for Christ, we regard him also as a saint.

A saint can have great human weaknesses but even in them be made holy. One reason asceticism played such a strong role in traditional Catholic spirituality was that it was considered evidence of the desire to convert. While Chabanel's martyrdom makes the issue somewhat moot, his struggle to overcome his inbred fastidiousness and his natural revulsion at the natives' way of life demonstrates a heroic desire to love the people to whom he had been sent.

Mother Teresa's cause rose in my estimation when I learned some years ago, prior to the publication of Mother Teresa:Come, Be My Light (Doubleday 2007), that after the mystical experiences that led Mother Teresa to found the Missionaries of Charity, she prayed without consolation for the rest of her life. An exceptionally dedicated life of service, like hers, shows a deep level of conversion when it is done in the midst of the dark night. Saints are women and men we regard as thoroughly converted, especially in the way they have dealt with their own failings and weaknesses.

Saints are women and men we regard as thoroughly converted, especially in the way they have dealt with their own failings and weaknesses.

So when we look to saints and martyrs today as models for ourselves, we should find not only men and women of virtue for us to emulate, but also flawed human beings, whose personal struggles to respond to Gods grace in their weakness led to the transformation of their characters. For us these women and men are tests of our own willingness to be thoroughly converted. How we are conformed to Christ in our weakness is the test of holiness for us all.

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Thomas Farrelly
13 years 2 months ago
"So when we look to saints and martyrs today as models for ourselves..."

It would be much easier for us laymen to look to them as models if they were not all clergymen.
What percent of those being considered are lay men and women?  Preferably in the world of work and raising children, like most of us.

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