As I was in the university library’s stacks on Wednesday retrieving a book on palaeography (a thoroughly Byzantine system, this German library: the stacks, of course, are not organized according to subject but according to accession date of the volume, with the result that, if you pick any four consecutive books off the shelf, you are likely to come across something like an English-language volume with a title I can’t pronounce about biology, a German-language work on literary criticism, a French work on 19th-century colonialism, and a volume of 14th-century Italian poetry—the only common thread between them being that they were all acquired by the library in August of 1986; hence, the only way to find your way around them is through the catalogue), I happened to glance at some of the other random titles on the shelves nearby. One bookcase to the right and three shelves down, my gaze alighted upon a volume bearing the title, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, by Kenneth L. Woodward (ISBN 0671642464, Library of Congress number BX2330 .W66 1990, or at amazon here). Though it did not dawn on me that I had checked the book out the day before All Saints Day until I was 60 pages in, it seemed rather providential that I plucked this particular book out of the catacomb-like dungeons of the university library.
After finishing the book this afternoon after lunch, I most whole-heartedly recommend it to everybody. It is a well-written and very engaging book that makes a very detailed and in-depth examination of the inner-workings of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. The author spent several years at the end of the 1980’s becoming as much of an insider as any outsider can be, haunting the halls of the Congregation and befriending its chief “saint-makers”. Woodward uses the examples of many contemporary “saints,” both already beatified or canonized and potential candidates to illustrate the various issues involved in the modern process of declaring people holy. It is especially interesting to see how he treats the causes of many modern “potentials”, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and St. Pio (aka Padre Pio). The political problems associated with Romero’s cause continue to plague it, while Dorothy Day’s was finally begun in 2000, ten years after the release of this book. Padre Pio, on the other hand, whose cause Woodward thought would languish, was quickly beatified in 1999 and canonized in 2002.
Of particular interest to me, in light of my recent discussion of the call to holiness and the example of the saints in establishing a Christian society of virtue, was a passage in a section in which Woodward was dealing with the cause of Katharine Drexel, a daughter of one of the richest 19th-century Philadelphia socialite families who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, and dedicated her great wealth and her life to educating and evangelizing to the Native Americans and blacks. The question in Woodward’s mind was whether or not she should have focused more of her energy on advocating for social and political change (she seems never to have spoken out against segregation laws). He concludes, however, as follows:
The answer seems to be this: in the church's classical hierarchy of Christian virtues, personal charity toward others ranks higher than doing justice by them. More precisely, love of neighbor rooted in love of God and manifested by personal attention to individuals more closely approximates the example of Jesus than does achieving justice for a whole class of people, particularly when justice is instanced, as in this case, by concern for the social and civil rather than the religious well-being of the subject people. As we [have already] observed....“political holiness” would require the saint-makers to think in a new key. Thus, to give the virtue of justice more importance than Mother Drexel attached to it would do violence not only to her own understanding of the virtues but to that of the church as well. In any event, as one historian of Christian sainthood has recently observed, “The saints have not typically sought or advocated political solutions to the problems of the needy—and certainly they have not been inclined toward revolution.” (p. 243)The implication is, of course, clear: the highest call of the Christian is to love God and neighbor, and the love of neighbor is expressed most ardently in wanting to share with them this love—as Woodward later puts it, we are to work “for the true liberation (i.e., liberation from sin through conversion)” of the oppressed (p. 244). Thus, it is not to political revolution that we are called, but to the personal and spiritual revolution of striving for salvation.
Furthermore, I want to highlight part of Woodward’s discussion on the usefulness and, indeed, necessity of saints to a modern world that seems continually less interested in them. One point that he is keen to make is on the value of the “heroic virtue” exercised by saints:
[T]he grounding of holiness in virtue is particularly important in an age like ours for which, in the spiritually promiscuous climate of the United States, at least, “spirituality” has become a catchall term for elevated states of feeling combined with psychological control over the nervous system and vague communigs with an indeterminate and innocuous higher power—all detached from the moral choices and conduct that produce character. (p. 396)
Finally, he identifies three key qualities that are “missing in societies in which the saint no longer matters” (pp. 404-6):
1. Connection: The cult of the saints presupposes that everyone who has existed, and everyone who will exist, is interconnected—that is, that there really is a basis in the structure of human existence for “the communion of saints.”…But to assert that all human beings are radically connected over space, through time, and even beyond death is to counter the experience and assumptions of Western, free-enterprising societies which prize personal autonomy and the individuated self….How can we imagine and celebrate saints when, as sociologist Robert Bellah has observed of contemporary Americans, we lack “communities of memory that tie us to the past [and] also turn us toward the future as communities of hope”?
2. Dependency: The search for connections is a very modern, very Western experience. The thrust of contemporary Western culture is to encourage autonomous human beings who cooperate as citizens but remain essentially independent. Our prevailing ethos is individualistic, utilitarian, and self-expressive. To be free is to be in control….To cite [John] Coleman…, “Saints…invite us to conceptualize our lives in terms of other than mastery, usefulness, autonomy, and control. As free instruments of higher grace and vehicles of transcendent power, they provide a vision of life that stresses receptivity and interaction.”…What makes us fully human, if saints are to be believed, are gifts: what the gift of life brings, the gift of grace completes.
3. Particularity: Christian holiness is incarnational. Each saint occupies his own ecological niche of time, place, and circumstance, The importance that Christians have traditionally attached to tombs, shrines, and pilgrimages attests to the belief that God’s providence is manifest in the local, the circumscribed—in the particular. Because grace is everywhere, the particular has eternal significance….It is precisely the sort of holiness one might expect in a religion of what God is like but also as the revelation of what every person, in his own concrete humanity, is called to be.
As always in the Christian story, the causes of the saints center ultimately on the greatest virtue, which shares in the divinity itself: love. So Woodward ends his tale:
My own hunch is that the story of a saint is always a love story. It is a story of a God who loves, and of the beloved who learn how to reciprocate and share that “harsh and dreadful love.” It is a story that includes misunderstanding, deception, betrayal, concealment, reversal, and revelation of character. It is, if the saints are to be trusted, our story. But to be a saint is not be to be a solitary lover. It is to enter into deeper communion with everyone and everything that exists.