People ask where I get my ideas for writing, and I think a fair amount of the time they to me come early in the morning, just after dawn. I read the entire Washington Post before I even get out of bed, so by the time I’m upright and walking, I already know what’s happening in the world, for better or worse.
So today’s story was about the Pope canonizing the two children who saw (or say they saw) Our Blessed Lady at Fatima, in Portugal. Now as one who writes about Catholic things from time to time, you might think this is a topic of interest for me. But you might be surprised to learn of my concern, and vague dismay, on reading about it.
First of all, it’s not clear to me anymore what is necessary to make someone a Catholic saint anymore. It used to be much more explicit. There are three stages in the process, and probably most candidates never get beyond the first or second—being called ‘Venerable’ or ‘Blessed’. To gain the top title of “Saint,” the crucial phrase is, as I remember from my catechism, ‘heroic sanctity,’ emphasis on the ‘heroic’ part. So Mother Teresa had it in the bag (excuse me, Saint Teresa of Calcutta). But then there is the troublesome matter of the necessary miracles. There usually have to be three, although popes have been to known to waive this requirement now and then. More so now than then.
I do believe in miracles, but think they are far more subtle occurrences than usually depicted, little graces woven deeply into everyday life. I can’t discount the validity of medical miracles, because I experienced one myself. Conceiving my daughter with crinkled Fallopian tubes was such an unlikely event that my ob-gyn wrote about my case for a medical journal. If I’d been on the ball back then, I should have been praying to someone in line for a sainthood promotion; then we’d have the necessary documentation. I do feel my daughter is a miracle, a special grace, as is being cured of cancer or recovering from paralysis. But the skeptic in me says, what does this have to do with that person being considered for sainthood? How do we know who to pray to? How does my random and grace-filled event make that candidate more holier? How is that heroic?
As for the other miracles—visions, secret messages from God and Mary, stigmata…Oh, boy. I just can’t buy it. I remember how horrified I felt, reading about the stigmata of a certain recent saint. Several of his doctors said it was not only self-inflicted, but they knew how it was done: With carbolic acid. It’s heroic, in a way, sure, but…I know my beloved Saint Francis had the stigmata, too, but he’s nine centuries away from us, so I’ll give him the benefit of my doubt. I can be a little more forgiving on visions, being in a creative endeavor myself, but usually seeing and hearing things can be a symptom of schizophrenia or some other mental disorder. Sainthood should not rest on emotional behavior or bizarre quirks, but require some kind of true and palpable sacrifice and service to others, heroic obedience to the only commandment that matters, love. The trouble is, these kind of people—heroically generous, loving, giving—also seem to have interesting transgressions in their pasts that make them unacceptable (to certain Church officials) as true saints. Which means the wondrous Dorothy Day probably has no chance whatsoever, because of her abortion (can you imagine!!) and earlier habit of co-habitating with men without the benefit of marriage.
And then, why are we canonizing children? This seems to me, as a mother, a bit exploitative; and we don’t want to be giving children some impossible idea they feel required to live up to. Let kids be kids, let them figure out life and their faith as they grow up (as normally as possible).
If I sound a little soap-boxy, it’s because I can’t help but think, as I go along with my biography of Father Irenaeus, that he has the ideal, almost immaculate sort of background that would qualify him for the canonization process. And for an American male on this earth for 78 years, that’s not an easy thing to pull off. But his heroic generosity—and it was that, indeed—involved not the bestowal of basic needs, food and shelter, or the more dramatic act of giving up his life, but the gift of books and knowledge and his own time to anyone who asked. Even I think the idea of putting him forth for the process is absurd, but I have to admit that I’d love to see him at least get the title of ‘Blessed’ or ‘Venerable’, because he was indeed both those things, in a perfectly ordinary way. As are, and were, many, many other people who will never even be remotely considered for canonization or any kind of earthly reward.