Real Characters

As an Indiana Hoosier, I felt a sense of vicarious spiritual achievement when Mother Theodore Guerin, the founder of the Sisters of Providence in Terre Haute, was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI last October. Born in France, Mother Theodore spent most of her religious life in Indiana, where she founded several schools, including one of the country’s first Catholic women’s colleges, St. Mary-of-the-Woods. In light of Guerin’s canonization, I read two books that explore the meaning and the magnetism of saintly lives.

Beginning with his boyhood fascination with the legendary and perhaps apocryphal St. Pancratius (a fourteen-year-old who was supposedly martyred by the Roman emperor Diocletian), Canadian university president and scholar Michael Higgins has been “haunted by saints.” Stalking the Holy is his attempt to understand and explain the process and politics of canonization. As he surveys the history of saint-making from the early days of Christianity through the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Higgins quotes liberally from the reigning expert on the subject, Kenneth Woodward. But while Woodward approaches the topic from the perspective of an investigative journalist, Higgins writes as a believer. The saints, he notes, are “heroic models, icons of hope, sacraments, exemplars of holiness.”

Higgins discusses a wide variety of causes for canonization, and three of the more complicated cases—Teresa of Calcutta, Padre Pio, and Pius XII—merit chapter-length examinations. (Opponents of Mother Teresa’s cause accuse her of manipulating the media, consorting with—and accepting money from—a host of unsavory characters, and focusing on almsgiving to the exclusion of any effort to eliminate the root causes of poverty.) John Paul II also looms large in the book, both as a candidate for sainthood and as the saint-maker par excellence, whose cumulative beatifications and canonizations surpass those of all his predecessors combined. Thanks to Higgins’s sense of humor and penchant for story-telling, the book is as enjoyable as it is informative.

Like Higgins, America magazine associate editor James Martin, SJ, also confesses to a childhood enchantment with saints, inspired in his case by the acquisition of a mail-order plastic statue of St. Jude. As the title suggests, My Life with the Saints is more spiritual memoir than scholarly inquiry. In each of the seventeen chapters, Martin uses a particular saint to discuss his own journey of faith. Complaining that most writing about religion “is cloaked in obscure language and proffered only guardedly, as if the writer has a secret too precious to share without first disguising it,” Martin strives for the opposite effect. At times his conversational, almost chatty tone can come across as patronizing, but there is little doubt of his sincerity, and he succeeds in making saints seem both accessible and human. His explanation of Jesuit spirituality, covered under a chapter on St. Ignatius of Loyola, is remarkably clear, and his portraits of Ignatius and other saints are neither sanitized nor sentimental.

Martin shares a number of stories of saints’ intercessions. In the aftermath of 9/11, he gets past police barricades, thanks to his hurried petitions to Pedro Arrupe, a Jesuit who ministered to survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. On a much lighter note, he describes how another New Yorker turns to Frances Cabrini, a saint well acquainted with the travails of urban life, for assistance in finding a parking space. Martin envisions saints not only as intermediaries between heaven and earth, but as friends and companions, the people who “offer us encouragement, like the runner just ahead of us in a race, urging us on and reminding us to pace ourselves.” In one of the most touching chapters, Martin describes a mysterious and painful ailment in his hands that prevents him from typing more than thirty minutes a day, clearly an occupational liability for a writer and editor. With the help of St. Peter, a man whose own limitations helped him realize his utter dependence on God, Martin finds in this frailty an opportunity to grow in compassion and humility.

Several saints appear in both books, though they are viewed through different lenses. The beatification of John XXIII provides Higgins with a window into the complications of canonizing popes, while that pope’s exuberant passion for life leads Martin to reflect on the expansive love and joy that celibacy can bring. Higgins mentions Dorothy Day in the context of those who oppose her canonization on the grounds that it would co-opt her prophetic witness; Martin remembers the year he spent teaching at Nativity Mission School in New York City, around the corner from where Day lived. Then and now, Day’s memory reminds him of the importance of living simply and working among the poor.

Martin acknowledges that not all saints have been recognized by the church. As an example of a prototypical “everyday” saint, he describes a weary mother of two young children preparing for a busy day in the office. Certainly, that has not been the model favored by the church for most of its history. Male saints outnumber female saints by a ratio of roughly three to one, and many female saints are, like Mother Theodore, founders of religious communities. Women religious and male religious, meanwhile, have an edge over other Catholics. Religious congregations have the resources to provide financial backing for a cause, which can take years, if not decades (Mother Theodore’s cause was opened in 1909).

Religious have an additional advantage—they were celibate. Virginity always helps a cause, particularly if one died in defense of it, as Maria Goretti did in 1902. Higgins is severely critical of the Vatican’s inability to reconcile a positive vision of sexuality and sainthood. “Married love,” he writes, “is more than a puzzler for the Roman overseers; it’s a theological conundrum. How do you persuasively talk about the joys, fruits, grace, and plenitude of married love without talking about pleasure, without taking seriously the simple physicality, the happy carnality of it all?” The Vatican’s intractability on this question is evident in the contradictions surrounding the unprecedented joint beatification of Luigi Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini. Though John Paul II praised the Quattrochis for showing that “the path to holiness achieved together, as a couple, is possible, is beautiful, is extraordinarily fruitful, and is fundamental for the good of the family, the church, and society,” the couple spent over half their married life living as brother and sister.

Higgins detects signs of change in the 2001 canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla. Diagnosed with a uterine tumor during her fourth pregnancy, Molla chose to forgo a hysterectomy to spare the life of the fetus, and she died a week after giving birth to a healthy daughter. Predictably, Molla’s canonization has been highly politicized, with critics charging that it was intended as “a papal arrow aimed at abortion.” Higgins quotes Molla’s postulator, who deplores the reduction of her life of holiness to the single decision. He also cites a feminist scholar who critiques the acute focus on Molla’s motherhood, arguing that it repeats the familiar pattern of classifying women saints by their family status rather than by their achievements.

Martin ends on a high note, enjoining his readers to discover saints of their own and naming others he would like to get to know better. Higgins closes with an air of expectation, eagerly awaiting Pope Benedict XVI’s next move in the thorny case of Pius XII’s canonization. “The cause of the Germanophile pope,” he observes, “is now in the hands of a German pope.” Higgins and Martin may approach the study of sainthood from different directions, but their books complement rather than compete with each other. Reading them together increased my appreciation for the humanity of the saints, the people whom Higgins memorably describes as “the still points in the whirligig that is life.”

Published in the 2007-01-26 issue: 
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Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of History, and serves as the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

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