REALITY CHECK! After the emotional high so many experienced yesterday at the events surrounding the canonisation of Australia's first saint, Dr Andrew Kania brings us back to earth in this reality check essay which he entitled "All Saints (cf. Matthew 21:31)". Many are saints though few will get the sort of acknowledgement given to Mary MacKillop!
The differing traditions in the making of saints...
The concept of Saints and Sainthood is as old as the Christian Church. In the Letters of St. Paul we read on numerous occasions of the Apostle to the Gentiles addressing the 'saints' of the particular churches and communities (cf. Ephesians 1: 1; Phillipians 1: 1; Philemon 1: 5; 2 Corinthians 9: 1). In fact the term we now use in the English speaking world as 'saint' derives from the Latin word, 'sanctus', which in itself derives from the Greek word, 'Άγιος' (transliterated to English often as 'agios') — to be holy. The Greek 'agios', also incorporates in its fullest meaning the notion of a person who has been called out from a group. Within the context of this 'calling out', any individual in St. Paul's day who received the Holy Mysteries of Initiation was known as 'agios', or a 'saint', for by virtue of participating in these Divine Mysteries, they were now members of a Royal Priesthood — the 'many' who were set apart from the 'all'.
As the Church progressed throughout history there were of course some who lived out their baptismal promises in a far more exemplary way than others. In the Western Catholic Church, a process gradually evolved that sought to ascertain which individuals of the Church had passed from this life into the next, and were in fact in Heaven. This process has been most vividly exemplified with the recent canonization of Mary Mackillop, St Mary of the Cross. Miracles must be performed and an inquisition conducted, sometimes taking an extraordinary length of time (for instance 400 years in the case of St. Thomas More, or 521 years in the case of St Stanisław Sołtys who was canonised along with St Mary of the Cross yesterday), to ensure that when the Church recognizes a 'saint' as a 'Saint', it does so not out of mere whim or popular affection, but because the individual has led a life of holiness. In the Eastern Church, such stringent investigation has never been the norm. Rather God inspires the people of the Church to recognize a person as being Saintly, and a synod of Bishops after deliberation recognizes that the individual in question is indeed in Heaven. Contrary to the secular media commenting that "Today the Vatican will make a person a Saint"; no Church authority, in the Christian East or West can 'make' a Saint, all they can do, according to the process they implement, is in time, recognize a person as being in Heaven. Canonization is this official recognition.
The canonization of Mary MacKillop is an important event for the Catholic Church in Australia. Entering its third century of Christian settlement, Australia has now a person recognized by the Universal Church, as being among the most blessed. There are other dimensions to the power of Mary of the Cross as the nation's first canonized Saint. Mary MacKillop was a humble woman born into a nation too often characterized by masculinity and male mateship. She was in every sense — a woman of this country — a soft-hearted product of a harsh geographic environment. Mary also had a firm belief in a homegrown Catholic Church — an Australian Catholic mission. Her work in education and her concern for the poor gave, the 'option for the poor', an Australian reality. Finally, she was an outspoken critic of the Church, who condemned sexual abuse by the clergy in her time — and as such she should become the patroness and protector of all children and people who have been abused or are under the threat of clerical abuse. Even the greatest atheist must attest that in St. Mary MacKillop the Church has a person, of outstanding character. In Mary of the Cross we have the essential Aussie Battler — who makes good.
Most likely NOT the first Australian to be a Saint...
But in the culture of Saints and in the euphoria of canonization there is also a cause for concern. Mary MacKillop is the first Australian to be officially recognized by the Universal Church as a Saint — but she is most likely not the first Australian to be a Saint. If Mary MacKillop is the first Saint this nation has produced — then the Church has completely failed in preaching the life-giving message of the Gospel to the people of Australia.
In short the number of Saints produced by our nation quite possibly numbers the thousands, or hundred of thousands, or perhaps even millions — only God knows fully the events of a person's life, and how in this singular life, an individual has sought His face. In the case of Mary of the Cross, the marque of holiness was made vastly more visible — by the religious vocation she chose; something the majority of Australians have not done.
To become recognized as a Saint in the Catholic Church today is a process that is beyond the majority of 'saints', that is the baptized; for in order to be officially recognized is not only a victory of holiness over evil — but an immense victory of lobbyists over time's fading memory. The reason that most Saints are from religious Orders is that these Orders can concentrate their financial resources and intellectual energies over generations and generations, so as to keep the Cause of a particular individual alive. This may sound cynical — but it is the truth. The process toward canonization is so lengthy, that financial costs aside, generations of enthusiasts are needed to ensure the Cause comes to its conclusion. The canonization of Mary MacKillop is a victory for the determination of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Brown Joeys, who have committed themselves to her Cause.
Recent lay Saints such as Pier Giorgio Frasati and the Beatification of Charles Habsburg are indicative of the importance of a strong 'power base' in order to promote a Cause of Sanctity for a lay-person. That it has taken Australia such a long time to have the Universal Church recognize an Australian as a Saint — can also be attributed to Australia not having a strong historical presence in the Vatican to promote Causes as powerfully as, for instance, the lobbyists from Italy, from France or more recently from Poland. Another issue that restricts the 'success' of particular Causes is the need to have documentation translated into the languages most commonly used in the Vatican — predominately western languages, in order for broader scrutiny. For the Church of the Catacombs — the Ukrainian Church — a Church that has tens of thousands of confessors and martyrs for the Faith — this is a prohibitive dimension of the promotion of Causes.
In the twilight of life ... judged ... by how much we have loved...
The pragmatic issues of canonization having been said, the Feast of All Saints highlights a broader litmus test for entering Heaven. St. John of the Cross once wrote: "In the twilight of life, God will not judge our earthly possessions and human success, but rather on how much we have loved". Certainly Mary of the Cross ticks this box. But so also do many, many, other people.
I recall speaking with an eighty year old woman about her life during World War II. I must emphasize that her story is not rare — I have heard many hundreds such like.
She had been brought up in a strict Catholic family in Poland. When the war began she was fourteen. Early in the war she was arrested and imprisoned in a Concentration camp; led through the streets — spat at by onlookers, who threw stones at her, because of her nationality. The woman told me that she was able to physically survive her imprisonment because she had been assigned to milk the cows — and would drink the milk from the pail. On one occasion while incarcerated the guards at the camp ordered this now fifteen year old girl by gun-point to take her clothes off. She stood naked with other prisoners. Under the gaze of the male guards in freezing conditions — this young woman stood, head bowed. Surely as a good Catholic girl she had expected the first man to look at her naked — to have been her husband. The guards shot an old man beside her — and then ordered her and the other girls to dig with their hands a grave for this man in the frozen ground. Afterward — she was raped. Released from the camp, this young girl hid her pregnancy, ashamed. She could have had an abortion, but she chose not. She went to live far away from her family, working in a factory. Each day she wrapped around her abdomen layers of cloth to hide from view her condition. In Catholic Poland un-married mothers were considered a great disgrace to the family. Her brother was the first to realize what had occurred when he journeyed to see her — and heard from inside the house, the cry of a new-born baby. Alone, this young girl had given birth to her child — tearing the umbilical chord with her teeth. Poorly educated — she struggled throughout the course of her life; marrying poorly — for how many men would wish to take a woman with a child. Yet to this day, she has not lost her belief in God. She told me that what kept her with the will to live — was a belief in God — and the knowledge that he would punish those criminals for what they had done to her and others. This woman will never be canonized — never; for with all her virtues she has her vices — as we all do. But if God is merciful — as He surely must be — will He not also remember the savage events that shaped the course of her life, and made her the person she became. Will He not remember her choice to keep the child alive in her womb? Will He not also understand that it is a far more difficult road to live in the world and be a saint, then choose a life out of it; a life of meditation and contemplation — and not a life too often of the survival of the fittest?
There are many religious in the world who have been canonized Saints — but let us never forget the innumerable Saints — the fathers who have worked for their families — humiliated each day by their employers; working in squalid circumstance, who on Sundays take their children to Church. Let us not forget the mothers, who in times of war have borne the brunt of the survival of families, while their husbands risk their lives to fight evil regimes; let us not forget these women, when caring for the babe at their breast, they receive the news of their husband's death — and fall into financial ruin — praying each day for solace from God. Let us not forget the child — bruised and beaten, lying frightened under the bed — praying — a victim of abuse.
Surely, one can win Paradise by becoming a priest, a nun, or brother — and then serving the Church. But the very fact of daily living is a call to Sainthood — by ALL the baptized. The Feast of All Saints is the day that the most humble of Saints are glorified — the individuals so humble — because of the countless, exemplary, ordinary nature of their lives — that their very names are forgotten by the Church — but not by God. Being a humble woman herself — Mary of the Cross would undoubtedly understand this truth.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Andrew Thomas Kania