Tuesday 23 January 2018

From martyrs to women: the changing face of sainthood

Holy show: A nun at the canonisation of the first Native American saint Caterina Tekakwitha (known as Lily of the Mohawks) held by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012
Holy show: A nun at the canonisation of the first Native American saint Caterina Tekakwitha (known as Lily of the Mohawks) held by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012

Salvador Ryan

As up to 100,000 people gathered in St Peter's Square last Sunday for the canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, many of those present will have interpreted the event as a kind of honours ceremony: she was being 'made' a saint; sainthood was being bestowed upon her by the Pope in much the same way as the Queen of England might honour an exceptional individual with an OBE.

For others present, however, Mother Teresa was long regarded as a living saint and no declaration of a pope could add or detract from that reality. More observers still will have approached the event with bemusement, while nevertheless allowing themselves to enjoy it as an anachronistic piece of religious theatre.

The concept of sainthood has changed frequently over the centuries. In Paul's first-century letter to the Romans, he refers to the early Christian community as "called to be saints" (Rom 1:17). And yet, it would not be long before the category of 'saint' would adopt a narrower meaning. The earliest evidence of a cult of the saints is connected with the honour paid to Christian martyrs, the anniversaries of their deaths being commemorated as a dies natalis (literally, the day of their "birth" into heaven).

In the fourth century, after the period of persecutions when martyrdom became less achievable for Christians, new holy figures emerged. These were the hermits and ascetics, both women and men, who retreated from the world to dedicate themselves to lives of virginity, prayer, fasting, and penance. In a way, they went one step further than the earlier martyrs, for they were understood to have chosen daily martyrdom, putting their own desires to death day after day.

A new saintly elite had been born, and this strand within the Christian tradition would evolve into various shades of monasticism. Unfortunately, one of its effects was to situate 'holiness' at a remove from the majority of the Christian population, leaving the impression that few 'ordinary' men and women could hope to achieve real sanctity.

For the first millennium of Christian history, those who were recognised to be 'saints' achieved this status by popular acclamation at local level, often aided by reports of miracles and wonder-working. Indeed, this was a crucial element in the recognition of a saint, localities often wishing to one-up each other in the proliferation of their own candidate's miracles.

Augustine recounts how favours received from saints were publicly read out in church as early as the fifth century, foreshadowing the 'publication' of saintly favours in newspapers and religious magazines through the 20th century, a practice which continues in some quarters to this day.

Over time, however, declarations of sainthood became more centralised. The first evidence we have for a pope canonising an individual dates from as late as 993, but it is not until 1234 that popes reserved to themselves the exclusive right to canonise.

This put in train increasing layers of bureaucracy, the requirement of attested miracles and the introduction of the 'Devil's Advocate', witness for the prosecution, as it were, whose job it was to unmask the would-be saint as, in reality, a scoundrel. Although the presence of a local cult of a saint remained important, having a say in declaring who was a saint was largely removed from the grass-roots.

Certain patterns of sainthood soon emerged. Men outnumbered women (usually aristocrats or religious, or both) four to one. Few were lay people and even fewer peasants, with the exception of one Isidore the Farmer (who died in 1130) to whom King Philip III of Spain had a special devotion. Very occasionally there were fast-track canonisations (Francis of Assisi was one), but others had long periods of time to wait.

Joan of Arc's canonisation in 1920 has often been regarded as a political move by Pope Benedict XV, who wished to bring about some form of reconciliation between Rome and an anti-clerical Republican government in France after some 15 years of broken diplomatic relations.

In more recent times, Pope John Paul II was very anxious to widen the pool of canonised saints, achieving a greater gender and geographical balance, not to mention re-emphasising what Vatican II termed the "universal call to holiness". This trend continued when, in October 2012, his successor, Benedict XVI, canonised the first Native American saint from North America, Kateri Tekakwitha.

Declaring a person to be a saint is not the equivalent of declaring a person to have been perfect or to have always got things right. Rather, it is the public recognition that, in the midst of human brokenness and frailty, an individual can nevertheless reflect something of God's presence in the world to a significant degree and in a manner which inspires others to do the same.

What's a pity, however, is when the public nature of canonisation is allowed to obscure the reality of the no-less-genuine sanctity of so many individuals whose names will never be read out in St Peter's Square, 'saints' whom many of us have known and loved and whose example has impressed itself upon us in how we try to live our lives.

Moreover, these everyday saints may even have been easier to live with. After the death of Mother Teresa in 1997, one of her fellow sisters is reported to have expressed a wish for a less dynamic successor: "I've lived with one saint already and I don't want to have to live with another…"

Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick's College, Maynooth

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