When the (books on) the saints walk

Happy All Saints! While tomorrow, All Saints’ Day, is a little more inclusive when it comes to memorials, today’s holiday is also significant for anyone seeking to live a life of holiness – it turns our eyes to examples. of holiness in our contemporary circles and in the history of the Church. And we’ve all known a saint or two in our own lives, haven’t we? Even if not, the church gives us plenty of examples, from apostles to martyrs to doctors to some real-life characters who might have seemed like unlikely candidates once. There is even a patron saint of writers, Saint Francis of Book Sales.

The saints are “both exceptional and ordinary: ideals of holiness that amaze us, inspire us to deeper piety and condemn us to our moral finitude”.

Over the decades, America always had time and space not only for this feast but for the worship of the saints in general. Our inaugural issue of April 17, 1909 featured a review of three books on Saint Joan of Arc, including Mark Twain’s Personal Memories of Joan of Arc. (The reviewer, Michael Kenny, SJ, insisted on calling him Samuel Clemens.) More recently, America editor James Martin, SJ, shot a 2005 reflection(“The Saint of the Sock Drawer”) in the starting point of the New York Times bestseller, My life with the saints.

Just in the last two weeks, America published two articles on Peter Gumpel, SJ, who spent decades in Rome working on the causes of various candidates for sainthood: “The final secret of the Vatican’s Jesuit saint maker” by Kenneth L. Woodward and Colleen Dulle and Gerard O’Connell “Inside the Vatican Podcast. Woodward’s 1990 book Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why introduces many readers to the exhaustive and sometimes byzantine processes by which candidates for sainthood are proposed and promoted. In 2019, Kathleen Sprows Cummings showed in A saint of ours how the causes of the saints can sometimes be linked to national and ethnic self-conceptions.

In his review of the latter for America, Jack Downey noted that saints can be many things at once. They are “both exceptional and ordinary: ideals of holiness that amaze us, inspire us to a deeper piety and condemn us to our moral finitude. They are also thaumaturgical protectors who miraculously cure us of terminal illnesses, protect our loved ones in times of war, and help us find things. But at the same time, they “are also essentially the mascots of particular causes, places and nations. And as such they are also subject to church politics.

In 2003, Lawrence Cunningham reviewed Robert Ellsberg The Saints’ Guide to Happiness for America, noting that Ellsberg had not looked to the saints for “a smiling existence, or even Aristotle’s fullness of life derived from an intellectually and morally ordered way of being”. Rather, writes Cunningham, “he has in mind that happiness rooted in the Beatitudes of Jesus, whose introductory word is more commonly translated today as blessed, rather than happy.”

Of course, as Cunningham notes, “the happiness promised in the Beatitudes is often oxymoronic in that, alongside peace and mercy, its litany of blessings includes words not normally associated with happiness. , such as mourning and poverty”. Holiness, in other words, is no laughing matter. Nor is it, according to Ellsberg, “a code of conduct or a program to follow, but a certain habit of being, a certain fullness of life”. However, Ellsberg also quotes her mentor (and likely saint) Dorothy Day in saying that happiness and holiness go hand in hand: “Halfway to heaven lies heaven.”

In 2014, Holly J. Grieco reviewed Robert Bartlett Why can the dead do such great things? for America. Bartlett points out through myriad examples, Grieco notes, that “the interactions between saints, living and dead, and the faithful” throughout much of Western Christian history have been dynamic: the faithful attributed to their saints gracious intercessions and interventions; during this time, the saints (especially in their burial places) were venerated by the faithful who saw their presence as an integral part of their lives.

There is even a patron saint of writers, Saint Francis of Book Sales.

Because of this dynamic (a kind of sensus fidelium in miniature), many saints throughout history gained their status not by official proclamations, but by popular acclamation. Grieco notes that even though the popes of the 12th and 13th centuries reserved the power to declare someone a saint, “in the late Middle Ages hundreds of men and women were still recognized as saints by public acclamation.”

It’s a phenomenon we often associate with ancient legends (Does St. Christopher still make the cut? St. Ursula? St. George and his dragon?), where there is little historical evidence that the person ever existed. questioned, but public acclaim is still a very real thing today. I was fortunate to be present for both the 2015 beatification (in San Salvador) and the 2018 canonization (in Rome) of Saint Óscar Romero; at the first, where Romero was declared “blessed”, there were flags, posters, prayer cards and t-shirts all over San Salvador proleptically declaring him “San Romero”. Why wait for Rome? We all knew he was a saint.

Any look at the calendar of saints will show that it has not always been the most inclusive list: there are many Europeans, many men, many priests, bishops and popes and many virgins and second-chance celibates, even counting those who have been canonized under our holy blessed last three pontificates. This seems to be changing a bit: Pope Francis mentioned the need for the church to have more female saints, and in 2007, America editor Drew Christiansen, SJ, wrote about the need for more diverse models of holiness among our Saints.

“So when we look to the saints and martyrs of today as role models for ourselves, we should find not only men and women of virtue to emulate, but also imperfect human beings, whose personal struggles to respond to the grace of God in their weakness led to the transformation of their characters,” Christiansen wrote. “For us, these women and men are tests of our own will to be completely converted. are like Christ in our weakness is the test of holiness for all of us.

Many saints throughout history gained their status not by official proclamations, but by popular acclamation.


Our selection of poems for this week is “Because my hands are small compared to God’s”, by Jane Swart. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

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Good reading!

James T. Keane

About Herbert L. Leonard

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