Pope John Paul II. Wikimedia Commons

Here and Now

With this issue, we begin a series of articles on the lives of American saints and martyrs. We start with an introduction on the figure of the saint, because “it is possible to live the Christian proposal in a serious way.”
Barbara Gagliotti

How many saints has Pope John Paul II canonized? It’s not so easy to keep track. At last count, there were some 300 new canonizations and 1,000 beatifications, a number far exceeding that of other popes. Early in his pontificate, John Paul II made several changes to the canonical norms for causes of beatification and canonization with the intent of facilitating the process. Where formerly a waiting period of fifty years was required to begin a cause, five are now sufficient. The necessary number of confirmed miracles attributed to the saints and blessed was reduced as well. Still, when the Pope canonizes a saint, pontifical infallibility is involved.

Why has the Holy Father declared so many new saints? What does the Pope hope to offer the world by this “spectacle of sanctity”? “Proof of the possibility of Christianity,” answers Adrienne Von Speyer, a twentieth-century Catholic mystic. By his action, the Pope seeks to call attention to the tangible signs of the presence of Christ in history, and this Pope has given us a sheer army of signs. These are men and women outstanding in holiness from around the globe and across the ages, many of whom are our contemporaries. The Church proclaims the saints in order to indicate how, by means of the most disparate temperaments, in the most variegated historical and social circumstances, with the most divergent of cultural tendencies, it is possible to live the Christian proposal in a serious way.

What exactly is a saint? It is easy for us to look upon these holy men and women as mythical and remote figures, as superheroes, bigger-than-life personages. As such, they remain outside of life, unreal and unreachable by us. Yet the Church has always looked upon the saints not as supermen, but as real men. In our journey through the lives of the American holy men and women, we will consider this and other characteristics proposed by Msgr Giussani as qualifying the life of the saint. They are (1) the saint as a real man, (2) the awareness of his own incapacity, (3) the affection for Christ, and (4) the saint as one belonging to a people. By examining these aspects, we can see in the lives of the canonized saints the magnification of those characteristics that most correspond to the heart of every man. The Christian can see, if you will, his own life writ large. And by further virtue of the proximity in time and space of these American saints to us, they provide a witness of the possibility of Christianity here and now.

The saint as a real man
A real man, the saint is a true man because he adheres to God and to the ideals his heart was made for; he adheres to Truth, Freedom, Love, Beauty–and thus he attains them. In Christ, the saint achieves the fullness of his personality, for his entire being reflects what he adheres to. He becomes what he loves. In fact, holiness is the reflection of the only one whose humanity was brought to fruition according to its full potential: Jesus Christ.

Structurally, man is need. Finding nothing in his finite experience that can satisfy this infinite thirst, man is forced to look beyond, he is forced to look toward the Eternal. The saint is the one who, precisely within his earthly experience, embraces the Eternal. Nothing is excluded from this mutual embrace of the Creator and creature, as the experience of many saints can testify. “The nearer a soul is truly united to God, the more its sensibilities are increased to every being of His creation,” writes St Elizabeth Ann Seton to a childhood friend. Perhaps the events in the life of this first American-born saint directed her gaze more swiftly toward the Eternal. Death, the ultimate test of openness toward the Eternal embrace, visited her household many times. This mother of five would lose her father, husband, several children, and beloved in-laws in her own short lifetime. After the death of her first child, Anne Marie at the age of 17, she wrote, “Oh my Anna, the child of my soul! All, all the dear ones, so many years gone before! ETERNAL REUNION!” Far from a stoic rejection of this life, she agonized over the future of her sons, pined after the souls of her dear friends, and grieved over the divisions in her order. The saint need not eliminate any aspect of experience, even the apparently most hostile. Thus, the curate in the Bernanos novel Dairy of a Country Priest can confess, “In front of death, I will not seek to play the hero or the stoic. If I am afraid, I will say so. But to Jesus Christ.”

An awareness of his own incapacity
“A profound contradiction, a sort of original illness, makes the human ideals excessive and impenetrable for every man; existentially, human intelligence and will prove to be deprived of their ultimate energy and to be inept at truly possessing what man is destined for. The saint is the man who most acutely and dramatically experiences this native frailty and awareness of sin.”

This is perhaps one of the most difficult positions for us moderns to reconcile with. It seems, in this age of the self-made-man, as though we can do anything, go anywhere, obtain anything. The saint, in this sense, is more of a realist. He is profoundly aware of the greatness for which he was made, while being acutely conscious of his own inability to attain it alone. This is the essence of the virtue humility. Far from the impeding perception of oneself as worthless, humility cries out with St Paul, “I can do all things in Him who gives me strength.”

The affection for Christ
Of the saint’s affection toward Christ, Msgr Giussani writes, “Only the companionship of the Son of God, who entered history and walks beside man, allows life to be fulfilled in proportion to its destiny. The affection for Christ represents the most admirable and stupefying trait of the countenance of the saint. The perception of His Presence is its most determining factor.

In a certain, yet true sense, what moves the saint is not sainthood seen as the search for perfection; it is sainthood seen as the possibility of encountering, leaning on, adhering to, becoming one with Christ. The encounter with Christ gives him the certainty of a Presence whose strength frees him from evil and enables his freedom to do what is good… the saint’s will is not set so much on wanting success as it is on wanting God; it is the active desire for Another.”

This desire for Christ is movingly evident in the writings of Mother Cabrini. “Oh, Love is not loved, my daughters! Love is not loved! And how can we remain cold, indifferent, and almost without heart at this thought? How can we forget ourselves in folly and nonsense? How can we put a limit on our affection and on our energy when we consider the interests of Jesus? Oh, how beautiful is the hymn of that fortunate bride who can say, ‘Jesus loves me, and I love Him! He is the only object of my thoughts. I have printed Him on my hands and in the deepest recess of my heart.’ … Let our bride’s small hands do the work of a hundred hands and bring His love and aid to the lost souls, to the poor in prisons, tenements, streets, mines, hospitals, fields, and wherever there is suffering!”

The saint as one belonging to a people
Because the saint recognizes his unity with God, Giussani tells us, he perceives his own “I” as totally within this “cosmos” and history which is of God; he perceives himself within Christ. For the saint, then, doing good coincides with building up the Body of Christ, and the Christian path to sanctity with edifying the Church. In his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente, the Holy Father reminds us that the early Church was born of the blood of the martyrs–Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum–and that the Church, at the close of the second millennium, has once again become a Church of martyrs. In fact, the majority of those raised to sainthood by John Paul II are martyrs who died during periods of modern persecution, including World War II, the Mexican Revolution, and purges in the Far East. By calling attention to those who suffered martyrdom, the Holy Father establishes a direct link between the seeds sown by the martyrs and the development of the local Churches.

Martyrs are found at the beginning of the history of the Church in North America as well. St Isaac Jogues and companions gave their lives as missionaries among the Huron and Iroquois Indians. Whether they shed their blood or gave their lives in many other ways, the stories of the lives of the American saints continue to give glory to Christ and build up his people in the world.