We are all called to be saints. We just need to be willing to grow and nurture the grace of our baptism and our vocation. We can live holy lives everywhere and anywhere if we take the Gospel seriously and follow in the footsteps of Jesus
SEVERAL YEARS ago, to my surprise, a person in the parish was complaining about a neighbour who was highly regarded by many of the parishioners. In the midst of the conversation, she said to me: “Sister, have you not ever heard the saying: ‘It’s bliss to live with saints in glory, but on earth it’s another story?’” I had not heard this saying before, but the words have stayed in my memory. Later, I recalled that even among the saints there were disagreements. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, we find the account of the controversy precipitated by Peter’s behaviour toward the Gentiles. When he was among them, he ate freely with them, but when some of the very strict Jews were around, he separated himself from the Gentile Christians. Paul wrote: “When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, however, I opposed him to his face, since he was manifestly in the wrong” (Gal 2: 11–12). Paul knew that at the Council of Jerusalem it was agreed that Gentiles would not need to be circumcised nor would they be bound to Jewish dietary laws. When Peter seemed to be unwilling to follow this agreement, Paul confronted him. Both were declared saints of the Church not because they were perfect, but because they lived according to their faith convictions. So the saying quoted above says something about how we can perceive holiness and our opinions reveal our own views of what it might mean to be a saint. I think the saying has remained with me because I grew up reading the biographies of the saints. Each of the saints I read about taught me something about how God takes us with all of our gifts as well as our limitations and calls us to holiness and a deeper life in Him. I wanted to be like them and have their same desire to please God and live their faith. In my own naive way, I assumed that saints simply skipped along on the road to holiness until someone proposed them for canonisation and the Church declared them saints; simple as that; or so it seemed to me as a child. Later, when I was a teenager in my Matric year at school, my dynamic religion teacher, Sister Aurelia, made me and many of my classmates see that we had to live our faith in a real way if we were going to grow in holiness. We learned that closeness to Christ became evident in how we lived, and shaped
the principles that were the foundation for our choices and actions. We had to do good not to get something out of it, but because we wanted to be like Jesus. This, Sister Aurelia said, enables one to grow in holiness and become saints. It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Church taught us that all of us are called to holiness—not just some special people, but everyone. In chapter five of the document The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the universal call to holiness is stated clearly: “The followers of Christ are called by God… because in the baptism of faith they are really made holy… by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received”. They are warned by the Apostle Paul to live “as becomes saints”. To become saints, we need to respond to the gift of holiness we received from the Lord by living our faith in fidelity to what we have been taught by Christ. It is that simple and that challenging. This becomes clearer when we realise who were the first saints.
THE TIME OF THE MARTYRS
The first saints were martyrs. They were Christians who were put to death for their faith in Christ. Prior to the year 1234, the Church did not have a formal process for canonisation. Usually martyrs were declared saints by the Church almost immediately after their death. Before the legalisation of Christianity in the year 313, the tombs of martyrs, like that of St Peter, were marked and kept as places of pilgrimage where people came to venerate those recognised as saints. The anniversaries of their deaths were remembered and placed on the local Church calendar. After the legalisation of Christianity, oftentimes basilicas or shrines were built over the tombs of the martyrs. The martyrs’ witness to the faith was so clear that they were declared saints by public acclaim. The journalist, Kenneth Woodward, confirms this in his book, Making saints (1996). He wrote that “To die for Christ presupposed supernatural support. Only the power of Christ working within the martyr, it was believed, could sustain him/her to the bloody end… Martyrdom was the perfect sacrifice and it implied the achievement of spiritual perfection.” As the persecution of Christians lessened, the question arose about how to judge the holiness and perseverance in the faith of someone who was not a martyr.
THE BEARDED VIRGINS
This became a certainty for people who met and observed the lives of others who exemplified holiness. Once Christians were no longer persecuted, they began to settle down and become more integrated into society. Some became lax about living their faith and adopted a very comfortable lifestyle that compromised Christian teaching. They lost what today we call their prophetic function. Nevertheless, there were Christians who believed that their faith commitment to Christ required them to live a more radical way of life and looked for challenging ways to live their faith. They were called “ascetics” or hermits because they fled to remote places such as the desert or mountain caves, to live there in solitude. St Antony of Egypt deliberately chose to live the life of the hermit. Eventually others joined him because they were attracted by his lifestyle and the wisdom he shared with them and they formed a community. What characterised the life of the ascetics? Woodward points out that, “ascetics were purified by the rigour of spiritual disciplines by which they experienced a daily martyrdom”. It was through fasting, prayer, night vigils, and rigorous penances that people came to regard them as holy. Stories about the strange practices of some of the ascetics of the earliest centuries in the Church show us that people went to great lengths to live in a way that they believed would help them to become holy. Many of the stories about saints in early Church history were not so much based on factual information as they were on legends that were passed on by word of mouth. As stories were told, they also were embellished with incredible details that form the basis of what is called hagiography. Authors of hagiographic biographies of saints sought to edify their readers and sometimes moved beyond the facts of a person’s life to describe what were considered signs of holiness at
the time the person lived. The legend of St Wilgefortis from 14th century Germany is one such story. Wilgefortis’ father promised her in marriage to a pagan king, but she did not want to marry him or anyone else. To cope with the situation, she ran away and took a vow of virginity. After still being pursued by suitors, she prayed that she would become so repulsive that no man would want to marry her and soon sprouted a beard! Her father was so angry that he had her crucified. St Galla of Rome and St Paula were also reportedly women who grew beards to keep pursuers away.
LIVING ON A PILLAR OR A TREE
There were also saints who lived in trees and pillars. One of the best known is St Simeon (Simon) Stylites who lived in the fifth century. Though Simeon tried monastic life, he was sent away from the monastery because the monks feared he would want to impose his ascetic practices on the members of the community. Simeon found that he was drawn to solitude and rigorous austerity. He stayed for a time on an outcrop of a mountainside, but people came to seek his advice and he wanted to live as a hermit. Simeon then found the ruins of an old pillar in Aleppo, Syria on which he built a platform where he stood or knelt. Boys of the city attached a rope to a basket which they filled with bread and goat cheese and Simeon would pull it up when he was hungry. A century later, St David Dendrite lived in a tree on the outskirts of Thessalonica. He, too, felt the need to live an ascetic life as a means to grow in holiness. This was a common ascetic practice. What can we learn from these unusual saints? Though their lifestyle choices may seem strange to us today, in their own times people simply saw their actions as ways to express their desire to grow in holiness. We can learn something from their dedication and the strength of their commitment to the chosen way that they felt God was calling them to live. We might ask ourselves how we are being called to holiness today? How are we living out our faith today? How do we give witness to the presence of Christ in our lives? People who were not martyred yet recognised as models of holiness were acclaimed saints because of popular demand. This took place not through a specific process in the context of their local diocese. They were granted sainthood by the local bishop and memorialised in local churches. Still the question remained: how was their holiness ascertained? The answer: miracles—but process was needed to judge the validity of the miracles.
PEOPLE NEEDED MIRACLES
Miracles became the deciding element in what was a very loosely tied-together process. The process needed to be written down. People living in very difficult situations looked to saints to perform miracles that would change the circumstances of their lives. Most miracles attributed to saints were healings or actions that brought about peace and reconciliation. Ordinary Christian people, especially in the Middle Ages, were not looking for models of exemplary ways of life; they were looking for relief from the harsh reality in which they lived. They wanted saints who could come to their rescue. During the pontificate of Urban VIII in the 17th century, he gained complete control over the making of saints through a number of strict procedures. He forbade any public veneration of local saints unless they gained papal approval. Pope Benedict XIV, in the 18th century, using Pope Urban VIII’s mandates as a basis, developed a clear papal process for beatifications and canonisations. Local bishops no longer could declare saints; dioceses needed to follow the process and if the proposed person was seen to be worthy of beatification and canonisation, he or she would be declared a saint by the Pope himself. As part of the process, a biography of the person had to be submitted to the Vatican. It was then that theologians and lawyers got involved. The purpose was to find evidence of the martyrdom or heroic virtue of the candidate. It was in this context that the “Devil’s Advocate”, formally called the Promoter of the Faith and canonical lawyers entered into heated debates about the material in the biography and if the person published any works, the orthodoxy of those writings. The role of the Devil’s Advocate was to raise questions about the “supposed” holiness of the candidate. He, usually an experienced priest or bishop, scrutinised the documentation that had been gathered and engaged the postulator and other supporters in a debate about the authenticity of the testimonies of witness and the supporting documents. Sometimes the process would go on for decades, even centuries. The process consisted of nine steps starting at the diocesan level. The process was designed as a juridical investigation and was made mandatory. It was included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
THE PRESENT INVESTIGATION
The process was streamlined in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. It is summarised here: – The process begins at the diocesan level generally, no sooner than five years after the person’s death. Only the Pope has the authority to waive this waiting period. – The local bishop forms a committee to begin an investigation of the candidate’s life and writings. The results of the investigation are then submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If approved, the candidate is called a “Servant of God.” – A postulator is assigned the cause of the candidate who continues the investigation of the cause. – A biography of the candidate must be written and should verify the historical details of the person’s life as well as martyrdom or heroic virtues that he/she practised. – The body of the candidate is exhumed and examined. A certification is made to insure that no improper cult or superstitious practices have developed around the tomb of the Servant of God. Relics are taken from the body. – The testimonies of witnesses are gathered. There is a special group of theologians and physicians that is formed if there are miracles attributed to the candidate. One miracle through the intercession of the candidate for beatification; two miracles are needed for canonisation, one after beatification. – Another group of theologians is formed to examine the testimonies of witnesses regarding the heroic virtues of the person as well as the practise of the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and what are called the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude). This special committee also looks for evidence of specific virtues proper to the candidate’s state in life. – There is then a thorough examination of the candidate’s life by an historical committee to look closely at the context in which the person lived and the significant virtues that would have been necessary for the person to have in that period of history and the specific culture and society in which the candidate lived. – When the reports are ready, they are submitted to the Promoter of the Faith.
He presides over a meeting of the Consultors. When all the material is reviewed thoroughly, the Consultors cast their vote on the merits of the cause. Their decision is then sent with the biography and all of the reports to the Head of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and discussed in a special meeting of the Cardinal and Bishops and their report is given to the Pope. – If the reports are accepted, the Holy Father declares the beatification or canonisation of the candidate and declares that public veneration can be given by the Church to the Servant of God.The long debates that went on between the Devil’s Advocate and the postulator of a person’s cause is absent from Blessed Pope John Paul II’s reform of the process. It is no longer seen as a juridical process, but a pastoral and spiritual process. This is a way to ensure that the People of God have genuine and true models of holiness confirmed by the Holy Father himself. They are recognised as examples of how the Gospel can be lived in diverse ways in various times and places. This confirms that there is no set model for holiness, only the assurance that God works in all of us for the building up of the Body of Christ.
THREE DIFFERENT CASES
In South Africa, we are seeing this process taking place in the cause of Benedict Daswa from the Tzaneen Diocese. He was a teacher and catechist who practised great charity to all and was killed because he refused to participate in witchcraft initiated by tribal leaders. Documentation for his cause has been sent to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. We have just witnessed the canonisation of Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope John Paul II. They were two different personalities who came from different backgrounds and had two different ways of exercising leadership in the Church, yet both can teach us something about holiness. It would do us well to pay attention to the lives of the saints. Are we all called to be saints? Yes, we are, but we must be willing to grow and nurture the grace of our baptism and our vocation. What that means is that we need to make choices about how we live so that we become witnesses to Christ’s life within us. Each night, we would do well to reflect on our behaviour throughout the day to see if in all our encounters with people we acted with integrity, honesty, fairness and goodness. Asking ourselves concrete questions like: Did I respond well to my co-workers? Was I polite to the people with whom I travelled to work or school? Was I honest in transactions with customers at the shop? Did I put in a fair day’s work or did I take extra time for talking to friends? Did I use the talents and gifts God has given me to help the community in which I live? Have I been faithful to my spouse? Did I give enough attention to my children? Have I been a responsible community member? Did I share what I could with those in need? These types of questions help us to make faith real and help to keep the focus of life on Gospel living. We can live holy lives everywhere and anywhere if we are willing to take the Gospel seriously and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we do, we will indeed become saints living blissfully in glory!