Over the past few years, I have spent a good deal of time speaking to groups both large and small about the saints. After listening to the comments and questions of people in parishes, colleges and universities, retreat houses and conferences, as well as reading scores of letters, I have noticed two extremes in contemporary Catholic devotion to the saints, both of them perilous.
The two main ways of understanding the saints in the Catholic tradition are to see them as patrons and as companions. These two models are elucidated in most scholarly studies of the saints, among them Friends of God and Prophets by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. They also find voice in the Preface of the Mass for Holy Men and Women, used on the feast days of the saints: “They inspire us by their heroic lives and help us by their constant prayers.”
The main challenge in fostering devotion to the saints lies in steering between the extremes surrounding those two models. On the one hand, there is in some quarters an exaggerated emphasis on the patron: the canonized saint in heaven who intercedes for us. In this understanding, the focus is on the one who prays for us in company with the risen Christ, the Blessed Mother and the communion of saints, after having led an earthly life beyond any critique; the patron never entertained an unorthodox thought, never suffered doubt for even a moment, never experienced conflict with the institutional church. Seen thus, saints are supposed to be acceptable in every way to people of every devotional type. Catholics who overemphasize this model are sometimes shocked to hear about the flaws of the saints, the areas where they did not follow the status quo and those times when they found themselves in conflict with church leaders.
On the other side are those who overemphasize the companion model: the earthy, sinful, struggling man or woman who shows us, through sometimes flawed actions, how holiness always makes its home in humanity. In this conception, the saint is someone who, once dead, serves no other role than that of model—as if their lives ended once they died. People in this camp often recoil from the parts of saints’ lives that include apparitions, visions or anything that remotely smacks of the supernatural. They are often aghast at talk of intercession, pilgrimages, novenas for the saint’s help and, of course, miracles.
A healthier (and more accurate) model is to see the saint as both patron and companion: the manifestly human being whose earthly life shows that being a saint means being who you are, but who now enjoys life in heaven and intercedes for us.
By way of illustration, let me share two stories from the two dangerous extremes.
A few years ago I wrote a brief article for the op-ed page of The New York Times that described the incredible life of Mother Theodore Guérin, the newest American saint. Mother Guérin was born in 1798 in France, entered religious life and eventually journeyed to Indiana. There this remarkably determined woman founded the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods and started a college and several schools in the region. One might think that such zeal would have won her favor from the local bishop.
It did not. The idea of a strong, independent woman deciding where and when to open schools apparently offended the bishop of Vincennes, Ind., a man whose name sounds like that of a villain in a Victorian-era potboiler: Celestine de la Hailandière. In 1844, when Mother Guérin was away from her convent raising money, the bishop, in a bid to eject her from the very order she founded, ordered her congregation to elect a new superior. Obediently, the sisters convened a meeting. There they re-elected Mother Guérin—unanimously. Infuriated, Bishop de la Hailandière informed the future saint that she was forbidden to set foot in her own convent, since he, the bishop, considered himself its sole proprietor.
Three years later, Bishop de la Hailandière demanded Mother Guérin’s resignation. When the exceedingly patient foundress refused, the bishop told her congregation that she was no longer its superior, that she was ordered to leave Indiana and that she was forbidden from communicating with her sisters. Her sisters replied that they were not willing to obey a dictator. At one point, the bishop locked Mother Guérin in his house until her sisters pleaded for her release. The situation worsened until, a few weeks later, Bishop de la Hailandière was replaced by the Vatican.
My op-ed noted that for a time the future saint, through no fault of her own, found herself in conflict with the church hierarchy. Within just a few days, I received a letter from a bishop with whom I am friendly. My article, he said, was damaging to the faithful. Was I saying that the only way to be a saint was to oppose the hierarchy? By no means, I replied. Rather, Mother Guérin’s struggles with her bishop were part of her spiritual journey, her very human life on earth.
Coincidentally, I had just returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where I had spent time cheerfully chatting with this friendly bishop. I am surprised that this would come from someone who visits Lourdes, he said in his letter. In response, I pointed out that St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes, had herself been booted out of the town’s rectory by the local pastor, after she first reported her visions of Mary. Here was another instance of a future saint being, for a time, rejected by the church. (The story of Mary MacKillop, the new Australian saint who was for a time excommunicated, is another of many such examples.) Understanding the saints as bland figures whose lives were free of any conflict indicates an exaggeration of the patron model, where any “controversial” aspects of a saint’s life are seen as irrelevant, now that they are in heaven.
Some Catholics who gravitate toward this extreme are discouraged to hear that the saints sometimes sinned even after their conversions; that they did not follow the “expected” things that saints are supposed to do; or that they were, in a word, human. Once, during a parish talk, I quoted St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the rosary, as an example of how different were the saints. They were not cookie-cutter models of one another, nor were their spiritualities. “The recitation of the Rosary,” said the Little Flower, “is as difficult for me as wearing an instrument of penance.” The crowd—believe it or not—gasped audibly.
“Why did you say that?” said a Catholic sister afterward. “Because it’s true,” I said. “Well, you shouldn’t say such things,” she said.
One extreme to be avoided, then, is an excessive emphasis on a homogenized, noncontroversial blandness. For the one who prays for us in heaven also lived a human life.
The other extreme is an overemphasis on the companion model, which stresses the saints’ humanity. More explicitly, it is an approach that shies away from what happens after the saint’s earthly death. A few years ago after another trip to Lourdes, I told a Catholic theologian about my visit there and about the pilgrims with whom I went.
“That’s dangerous,” he said.
“What is?” I asked.
“The notion that the saints pray for us, that miracles happen—like magic.”
But that is what we mean by “patron,” I responded, quoting the prayers of the Mass: “They help us with their constant prayers.” After all, I said, the law of prayer is the law of belief (Lex orandi, lex credendi). Besides, the records of miraculous cures are available in Lourdes for all to see, authenticated by physicians, many of them nonbelievers. And that is just for St. Bernadette. Read the canonization papers for any modern saint and you will be gobsmacked by the cures: immediate, irreversible, inexplicable. From the look on my friend’s face, however, you might have thought I was telling him that I believed in the Great Pumpkin.
But if God can create the universe and raise his Son from the dead, then miracles—miracles today, that is—seem easy in comparison. Regarding the question of why some prayers are answered and others are not: I have no idea. Why, if millions visit Lourdes annually, have only 67 miracles been authenticated? I have no clue. But that is no cop-out; it is on the same theological plane as the problem of evil: Why do some people suffer? I don’t know, but I do not need to understand God fully to believe in God fully or to love God fully. But those miracles, whether or not we understand why they happen, do happen.
When the doubtful or suspicious ask about intercession I often ask them this: If we ask for the prayers of friends on earth, why not from friends in heaven—unless we do not believe that they are with God, or that God somehow destroys their unique selves after their death, which I cannot believe. If our fellow sinful believers on earth pray for us, why wouldn’t the saints? Regarding intercession, it is also important to look at the sensus fidelium. Millions of Catholics pray to the saints for their help; they can recount personal stories of being helped in ways that go beyond credulousness, gullibility or stupidity. So I pray to the saints regularly. But I do not get overly upset when my prayers are not answered.
The dangerous thing is not so much “believing in miracles” or even “believing in intercession.” The dangerous thing is limiting God. In essence, it is saying, “God cannot possibly work like this.”
When it comes to devotion to the saints one must hold in tension their dual roles as patron and companion. An overemphasis on one destroys the saint’s humanity, renders their earthly lives almost meaningless and negates their roles as models, examples and companions as Christian disciples. An overemphasis on the other makes their new lives in heaven meaningless, renders the tradition of intercession irrelevant and negates their current place in the communion of saints.
There is an obvious parallel to Christology. In classical Christian theology, Jesus Christ is understood as “fully human and fully divine.” An overemphasis on the divinity of Christ (for example, saying that Jesus could not suffer because he was God) is as unhelpful as is overemphasis on Jesus’ humanity (for example, denying his ability to perform miracles). Both need to be kept squarely before us as Christians, to be held in tension for us to begin to understand Jesus Christ. The same tension needs to be held when looking at the saints, balancing hagiography “from above” and “from below.”
So in my own work and life I am trying to restore a little balance. And I’m happy to do so with the help of the saints, my patrons and companions.