The messy business of becoming a saint

Sainthood is a complicated and sometimes controversial subject. The significance of formally enrolling someone in the canon of saints is disputed, and the role of finances and ecclesiastical politics has over the centuries cast a shadow of incredulity over the proceedings.

Coinciding with Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, questions surrounding the meaning and purpose of this sort of official recognition have surfaced in at least two instances. Both cases center on North American Franciscans; and though they were centuries and a continent apart, both have attracted considerable interest and controversy.

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On the west coast there is Father Junípero Serra, the 18-century missionary sometimes called the “Apostle to California.” As a recent article in this magazine (“Serra’s Sainthood,” 8/31) explained, in the wake of Pope Francis’ surprise announcement that he would canonize Serra during his visit in September, some Native American groups have protested, accusing Serra of maltreating the native peoples he encountered in the 1700s.

On the east coast there is Father Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain (and a friar of my Franciscan province) who died on Sept. 11, 2001, as he served first responders in a ministry of presence. Although personal support and veneration for Judge have continued to grow during the 14 years since his death, some people remain uncomfortable with reports that Judge was a recovering alcoholic and may have been gay (though committed to his religious vows).

Were these friars saints? Should they be canonized?

Certainly, the two situations are very different. In Serra’s case the concern is about alleged wrongdoing committed against the native peoples of California. Judge’s case centers on the discomfort some people have with the complex humanity his story reveals.

In truth, neither friar was perfect. But then again, that is not what it means to be a saint. Every saint was also a sinner, an imperfect and finite creature brought into existence by a loving God. Whether we are talking about Elizabeth Ann Seton and Francis of Assisi, or Serra and Judge, we are talking about people who responded—the best way they knew how—to God’s call to live the Gospel and fulfill their baptismal vocation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors” (No. 828). This summary makes no mention of preclusive past mistakes or lives of absolute perfection. Nor does the declaration that they practiced “heroic virtue” guarantee that each would-be saint never indulged in any vice in a moment of human weakness. To claim such a state would necessarily exclude everybody from the canon (maybe exempting Mary, the Mother of God).

Rather than resort to black-and-white thinking that paints Serra and Judge as either saints or sinners, perfect or imperfect, we need to readjust our perspective. Saints are held up as models of Christian living, as spiritual mentors and intercessors reminding us of our baptismal call. The catalog of official saints provides a rich diversity of Christian guides, and different saints appeal to different people.

Serra will soon be added to that roll, but what about Judge? Should he also be added? I don’t know. But I do think that Judge provides a genuinely inspiring model of selfless Christian service. By all accounts he was a friar who tirelessly served the people of God, including many of those few others would serve: the homeless, people with H.I.V./AIDS, the imprisoned, the addicted, the disabled. And he served those who risked their lives daily to help others, including firefighters, ultimately giving his own life in similar service.

It is the fact that both Serra and Judge were complex individuals that makes them so appealing. We should not whitewash Serra’s relationship with native peoples but acknowledge the truth that saints can also be deeply flawed persons. We should hold up Judge’s heroic ministry, as well as call to mind his own struggle for sobriety. We should look to these deeply relatable Christians as models of God’s grace working where we at times least expect it, rather than in the false perfection we desire in the saints of our imagination.

Junípero Serra and Mychal Judge, pray for us!

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2 years 3 months ago
Well and simply said! As I follow the call to holiness, that is to become a saint, I realize daily that it is God's grace that will make me so. One of my holiest acts, I feel, is to confidently seek forgiveness and absolution for my sins. The tally sheet of my sins and vices may well outstrip that of my virtues but in the end only one thing is needed. The infinite love and mercy of God to myself a repentant sinner is the key. I have always honored the many canonized saints from this perspective. They, like me, are forgiven sinners who put their faith in God's mercy despite their foibles and faults. That makes them extremely good models for all of us who trudge the path to holiness.
Richard Booth
2 years 3 months ago
Much of the time, there is something with which I disagree in Horan's writings. And, although he is almost stating the obvious about people who become saints, this article may remind some of the humanness of saints, a point that is quite important. Serra lived in a time with its own cultural context and Judge was apparently a man who struggled. As a psychologist, I know about the human struggle only too well. So, Horan's approach is right: we need to be understanding of our own and others' frailties and vulnerabilities, and they do not cancel the good we do and have done.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 3 months ago
Jesus said, "There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend." I believe Mychal Judge is in the Land of the Living, of the Blessed, because heaven is all about perfect love and there is nothing greater than the perfect love that motivated Fr. Mychal to give his life, as Jesus did, sacrificially. That act was the crowning moment of his life of struggle, whatever forms those human struggles took. Let's focus in on the heroism of virtue that faithfully saturated his life. Necessary to her life, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the only saint to which the following does not apply -"A saint is a sinner who never stopped trying!" If this is baloney, who then can be a saint? Blessed Mychal pray for us that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ! You too, Junipero. It's well known that St. Jerome had an anger management problem all his life and wrote some pretty nasty things in un-saintly ways to people who disagreed with him. Like the time he told someone (St. Augustine?) that "Satan was sniffing at his underwear!" Recognizing his humanity the Pope who canonized Jerome said, "Jerome, Jerome, how could we canonize you if we did not know of your many penances!" For sure Junipero wasn't always right, often pretty wrong, yet always he was a man of strong Faith, a man of penance, who tried to do right things as best he understood. Just like the rest of us! Blessed Junipero pray for us!

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