To get a spot on the Catholic Church’s official list of saints, a person needs more than a holy life. She needs witnesses to testify to that holiness, miracles attributable to her intercession, supporters who have the influence and the means to pursue her cause and see it through to completion. Good timing helps, too. As Kathleen Sprows Cummings writes in the introduction to her new book, “Canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, but it is never only about holiness.”
A Saint of Our Own is a deeply researched and absorbing history of what the process of declaring sainthood has been “about” for successive generations of American Catholics. “In the United States,” Cummings writes, the process of recognizing saints “has often been about the ways in which Catholics defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans.” In tracing the major shifts in American Catholics’ self-image from the nineteenth century to the present, Cummings demonstrates how each saint’s path to canonization was affected by shifting political realities, power struggles in the hierarchy, and emerging awareness of feminism and racial justice. A great deal of social history is packed into this scholarly and readable book.
What did American Catholics need homegrown saints for, anyway? As immigrants swelled the population of the faithful, their answers to that question changed. The U.S. bishops of the 1880s, who petitioned Rome to open the causes of Kateri Tekakwitha, Isaac Jogues, and René Goupil, wanted an official affirmation of Catholicism’s status in a country Rome still considered mission territory. A few generations later, those missionary-era candidates were eclipsed by people like Mother Frances Cabrini and John Neumann, “saints who evoked transplantation of European Catholicism rather than the conversion of native people.” At the same time, America’s increasing significance on the global stage meant Catholics in the United States no longer saw themselves as outsiders in the institutional church; particularly after the World Wars, Americans felt they had earned respect and recognition from Rome.
It is, of course, difficult to say what “Catholics” in general thought or felt about saints, or anything else, at any given time. What makes Cummings’s book especially valuable is her attention to the influence that “both popular piety and structures of power” had on the histories of America’s would-be saints. Popular opinion is represented here by well-chosen quotations from publications (including this one) that captured, or attempted to influence, Catholic thought throughout the last two centuries.
A major theme in A Saint of Our Own is the role of women as both candidates and petitioners in the quest to establish American saints. As in her previous book, New Women of the Old Faith, Cummings lucidly traces “the complicated relationship between gender and power in the church and in the early twentieth century.” For instance, “until 1983,” Cummings writes, “canon law stipulated that women could petition the Holy See only through male proxies.” That meant “any women’s congregation proposing one of their own members for canonization…would need to have the case mediated by a man—and by a man selected by the Sacred Congregation, not by the sisters themselves.”