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The EditorsSeptember 19, 2011

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.

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Robert O'Connell
12 years 5 months ago
Rather than curse the darkness, why not start publicizing lay people that you believe are true candidates for sainthood.  Surely the Society of Jesus knows a lot of holy lay people.

Think about Pierre Toussaint.  He is already recognized as a "venerable" American.  Sometimes I think we fail to help our society know enough about goodness, love, prayer, sacrifice and virtue.  As this editorial notes, "the public nature of the lives of the priests and members of religious orders" makes it "easier to see the personal impact of a founder or foundress than it is to know about a parent's care . . . ."

If we truly treasure the "kind of hidden lay holiness" lay people live, we should help the world know about it.  Perhaps religious orders with financial resources and technical knowledge have a special duty to make known what they know about lay people.  Who else is in a better position to solve this problem?
12 years 5 months ago
Most of  us know or knew parents and teachers and other s who lived the Gospel and experienced their holiness first hand.  Even  if their stories made it to the Vatican for sainthood it would be a lot later and who would they impress- just as many of the already canonised saints with few exceptions are  not known in the context of their lives and culture.
12 years 5 months ago
Most of  us know or knew parents and teachers and others who lived the Gospel and experienced their holiness first hand.  Even  if their stories made it to the Vatican for sainthood it would be a lot later and who would they impress- just as many of the already canonised saints with few exceptions are  not known in the context of their lives and culture.
Frank Hartge
12 years 5 months ago
This smacks of the modern practice of making sure every little kid on the soccer team gets a trophy. Or of college-level grade inflation. Some achievements are simply hard. It costs a lot to attend medical school. And to become an Olympic champion. And to excavate dinosaur bones. Some things are simply difficult and expensive, and should probably remain so, in order to that they not be watered down to insignificance.
Craig Hanley
12 years 5 months ago
Is there anything you folks like about the Church?
12 years 5 months ago
How about a technologically savvy person start a website entitled www.goodnewslaypeople.com and  anybody can  post heroic stories of ordinary faithful who merit recognition of their sanctity.   These stories will certainly inspire the rest of us to emulate their lives or ways of living the Christian life.  Mirror neurons in our brains enable us to mirror what we are exposed to even unconsciously.  So why not saturate the public/current culture with these kinds of stories,  so people who read/hear about them will mirror back the positive behavior.
Rob McCann
12 years 5 months ago
There is a "saintly conspiracy" that goes like this - celibacy is a higher life vocation than the married state. Where did that idea come from but from celibates in charge of the conversation? We need to invite the wider People of God respectfully in to get their life-filled reflection. I don't think that you need a degree in theology to contribute.

As one who went through the seminary system the subject of celibacy was barely mentioned and rarely discussed. The subject was treated as a lecture given by the spiritual director, often the same person through the years.  There were no questions and certainly no answers. It was not done in a welcoming way, but rather, if you want to be ordained, this is what the church teaches.

With Vatican 11 so downplayed, the hope for a more open church has been left to a later time, if there is time?

Theo Verbeek
12 years 5 months ago
Obviously the present system for making saints is not satisfactory. E.g. There are many more males than females saints. A through overhaul of the "RULES" seems to be indicated.  
12 years 5 months ago

There’s lots of  laity saints in both Old and New Covenants, like Abraham and Sara, Moses and Miriam and in the NT  lay people like Cosmas and Damian, Lucy and Agnes and other lay folk married or single. Marriage didn’t used to be a barrier to public ecclesial admission of holiness, perhaps reminiscent of St. Paul’s assertion that, “Christian marriage is the most perfect model of the Church.” Whose Church?

Noteworthy too is the happy reality that the greatest saints of the Church are married laypeople, like the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, including also Mary’s mom and dad, Sts. Anne and Joachim.

As Church we’re all called to universal holiness, a reality recognized by the Fathers of Vatican Council II, which I hope remains intact considering that, according to Kevin Dowling, C.Ss.R., Catholic Bishop of Rostenburg, South Africa, the Council is being

 I hope it doesn’t happen because the Catholic Church needs  computer literate, sports crazy, fashion savy,  Big Mac “lovin it” canonized saints who also liked BBQ ribs and a beer or two and even Merlot at a dinner with friends! Also married of course, who sacrificed a lot to put the kids through Catholic Schools. Let’s say to her/him /them “Sts. Many of Us, Pray for us!”

Richard Lender
12 years 5 months ago
The editors refer to Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, as "...a couple who...initially plan[ned] to live together as brother and sister," a condition apparently not as inspirational as couples who lived "ordinary lives." "Where are the holy mothers and fathers?" the editors ask.

This objection is perplexing to me.  I take it as given that America is not denigrating the parents of St. Therese, or questioning their holiness.  But how are they not a true "holy mother and father?" What parents (save those of our Lord) have ever demonstrated greater holiness? How are they not inspirational as saintly parents? How are their initial intentions inadequate - or shall we say "limiting" - given that they did, in fact, enjoy normal marital relations sufficiently to conceive nine children and raise the five surviving ones to be devout adults - all while both holding down jobs?  In short, how are Louis and Zelie Martin not everything America magazine is seeking as exemplars of saints who lived as lay parents?  

Perhaps my difficulty lies in the fact that editors have done a better job here of indentifying cases which are not quite adequate to what they seek in the beatified and canonized than in identifying ones that *are.*  If you did so, it might in turn be easier to identify what aspects of the process for the cause of saints you wish to strip out or modify.

It is, after all, a long and difficult process for many good reasons - one already weakened in arguably imprudent ways during the last pontificate.
12 years 5 months ago
I have no criticism of the process by which saints are canonized: I just don't know enough about it.

But, as someone who has devoted much of his life to studying the work of Flannery O'Connor, I do wonder why her cause is not fast-tracked. The iconography is easy: her attribute will be a peacock. And while she can share the work of being the patron of writers and the handicapped with other saints, she can herself take on another class of people who need an advocate in heaven: adults who live with their mothers.
Cody Serra
12 years 5 months ago
 I rarely wanted to hear the story of canonized saints growing up. They were described in older books as some kind of "spiritual immaterial beings so holy" that scare the hell out of me as role models. The more recently publish life stories of many saints shows more their humanity, weaknesses and unique gifts that made them holy.
But for the most part, they continue to be ordained or religious persons.

In my personal opinion, as a lay mature woman, this state of affairs will continue as long as the church continues to favor the ordained, religious founders and religious persons over the sanctity of people who lives a holy and simply daily life.  I believe it is a result of the clericalism in our church that has always presented the ordained and religious vocations as the most conducive to show our total commitment to God and neighbor. We are all called to holiness, but within our own vocations.

Christopher Buckley
12 years 5 months ago
I agree I would like more publicly recognized examples of private saints. I believe with the Church that marriage is a calling and a vocation. I could really use some saintly husbands and wives to pray with in the communion of saints.

That said, the logistics are daunting.
Perhaps it's not so much about recognizing new examples, but using the prayers of the All Saints' liturgy in November to specifically call out the unknown saints for whom marriage was a road to sanctity.  
12 years 5 months ago
John Paul II, his successor and, by extension, all they have appointed to high office in the church, do not really believe in the precepts of the Second Vatican Council, as evidenced by the roll-back of collegiality and subsidiarity and recognition of bishops, like Bishop Williamson who strive to deny the holocost, bring back the Tridentine Mass, etc.

Not only has Pope Benedict XVI recently rehabilitated Bishop Williamson back into the Vatican fold, but he promoted Austrian priest Father Gerhard Maria Wagner to bishop. Bishop Wagner is well known for his declaration that Hurricane Katrina was God's "divine retribution" against the sexual permissiveness abounding in New Orleans.

Read more: http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/46435,news-comment,news-politics,how-can-oxbridge-educated-bishop-richard-williamson-deny-the-holocaust,2#ixzz1XmAg3XnV

There is so much evil entrenched in the hierarchy, as evidenced by the actions of the bishops to hide pedophiles for decades, that it is questionable that any of them are qualified to judge sainthood.  The processes and structure in the church that brought us all that grief and scandal are still in place.  Nothing has really changed and it is still a top-down, good old boys network - with emphasis on the old - as in returning the church to the 'old' days.

So, the starting point for this article, assuming a "universal call to holiness" is probably not valid in the current environment and not the place to start this discussion. Those who control the path to sainthood are mostly old men who, for the most part, only know only other old men and priests & religious.  If there were genuine reform in the church, and particularly, in the way priests and bishops are chosen, then a logical fall-out would be reform in the way lay people are recognized as saints.
12 years 5 months ago
It is encouraging to see the Church's interest in the sainthood of a
modern mother-St. Gianna Molla, possibly Louia & Zelie Martin, and
Dorothy Day. Why not more married people?  Why most connected to religious orders? I think you answered your own question:  it is an
expensive procedure which needs the financial resources of an order-
a group, rather than a few individuals. My mother was a saint-cared for my invalid father, raised the three of us, worked part-time, devoted time to her parish.  Both she and my father (the invalid) raised us in the faith, provided for us through their sacrifices and creativity.  Their lives were good examples for us and their contemporaries even if their names did not have an St. in front of
George Trejos
12 years 5 months ago

While doing an article for our parish community on the saints who grace our windows, I learned the interesting background about the canonization practice.  Prior to the end of the 11th century, local bishops and local churches decided whom among the departed faithful were deemed worthy of sainthood, emulation and intercessory prayer. After that point the Vatican took a more authoritative role in the qualification and pronouncement for sainthood.

This early practice reinforces the reality that there are saints among us and sainthood is an obtainable goal based on a life lead in faithful service to Jesus' call that we strive to be perfect as He and the Father are.  I'm certainly not advocating that we return to earlier times but we don't have far to go to recognize that there are good people whom we daily encounter who demonstrate the virtues of sainthood.  Eulogies take on greater significance as we hear about the sacrifices that departed neighbors endured as parents, teachers, laborers and faithful christians.  Do we need to raise them to the formal rank of SAINTS? Probably not, but they are nevertheless there among us to encourage us that we too can strive towards holiness in our daily and mundane lives.

Mike Daniels
12 years 5 months ago

Thank you!  This is a very important issue!  Marriage is in real trouble in the world.  We who are married are desperate for normal role models.  We need people in the trenches who have held jobs, paid bills, enjoyed a healthy sex life, raised kids, and remained faithful to God.  We need saints that have walked our walk that we can emulate. We need saints who have had challenges in their marriages and hung in there.  I hope with all my heart someone high up in the Church reads your fine article and listens.

Craig McKee
12 years 5 months ago
Former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward's MAKING SAINTS is still the best read on the block for insights into the "mysteries" of the ecclesiastical machinery mobilized to increase the calendar of saints.
Luckily for us, "the Church" proposes but God still disposes!
12 years 5 months ago
As we read this editorial, we wept.  We are the parents of a little boy with autism and the example od "a mother of an autistic child" was included in the editorial three times.  We understand that we are "called to holiness" but even with all of the love we have for our son, we do not feel that we are living a life of "heroic sanctity."  What we have known, however, is an even greater sense of the presence of the holiness of others around us and of the presence of God.  We have also found that we have prayed even more deeply since Matthew Aloysius Francis Xavier was born to /with Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Joe Fitzpatrick, Royden Davis,Gene Linehan,Pedro Arrupe, Frank McGauley, and so many family members who lived very ordinary lives on this earth.  Thank you so much for this editorial and God bless.
12 years 4 months ago

Your timely editorial (The Universal Call, Sept. 19) was interesting since it covered the sad fact that what ideally is “the universal call to holiness” is not adequately mirrored in the type of canonizations that are publicly solemnized in the Catholic Church.

You referred to the martyrs of the 1936-1938 Spanish Civil War: 498 of them were beatified October 28, 2007, among them a number of laymen and women who were studying or working in the communities of the martyred members of religious orders. A person needs only be proven “a martyr” to be canonized. The rest of his or her life is no longer part of the official cause. You mention the Austrian priest killed in Buchenwald. During Benect XVI’s recent visit to Germany, Father Lombardi noted that the president of Germany, Christian Wulff, recalled three notable Catholic (sic, in ZENIT)) victims: Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg, the pastor of the Catholic Cathedral of Berlin; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant theologian; and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite nun, and was later killed at Auschwitz. 

That made me wonder why Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred for his Christian faith by Hitler, could not be canonized like the other martyrs, unless being a good Lutheran pastor is considered the only “unforgivable” problem when studying a martyr’s life.

Wasn’t an Anglican canonized by Paul VI with the Uganda martyrs?


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