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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

September 30, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 121




Pat Morrison Saints (and lesser lights) come marching in

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

If one goes by Catholic stereotypes, and heaven knows they're legion, "progressive" Catholics are not "into" saints (or the rosary, or eucharistic adoration, or any of the other areas that are the supposed exclusive domain of "conservative" members of the church).

Well, even as I consider myself progressive, I'm "into" all three of the above, to greater or lesser degrees at various times. And even as the other two elements have waxed and waned, the saints have always been a constant. Not in the novena-making, statue-collecting, chaplet-praying sense, but in a very real way.

I think the best word for it is friendship. My favorite saints are people I can relate to, learn from, laugh and cry with; men and women who nudge me beyond complacency and other ills of the spirit because of their wild and passionate love affair with God and God's people, and their mysticism wrapped in down-to-earth common sense.

For people who are saint aficionados, October means finding oneself like a kid in a candy store. Some of the church's most interesting men and women (plus a few angels!) people the liturgical calendar this month. Many of these are the church's MVPs: Francis of Assisi, Therese of Lisieux and her spiritual mentor Teresa of Avila, the evangelist Luke, Margaret Mary Alacoque (of Sacred Heart devotion fame), Ignatius of Antioch, the North American martyrs (Isaac Jogues, John Brebeuf and others), founders like Paul of the Cross (Passionists) and Anthony Claret, and the ever-popular St. Jude (patron of the impossible) and his lesser-known calendar-mate, the apostle Simon. And don't forget the Guardian Angels.

If you count feasts on the calendars of the Roman and Eastern churches, plus saints' memorials approved at the local level, and uncanonized holy folk who were honored long before the church instituted an official sainthood process, there are more than 250 this month alone (although admittedly many of these are obscure at best and a few bizarre at worst).

The Catholic church, it is often said, is a big tent. And when it comes to saints, there's likely to be a holy person for every taste. I confess I'm less than enthusiastic about some of the saints and blessed John Paul II has elevated to the altars -- he holds the all-time record, having beatified or canonized more people than all his predecessors combined. Married people who decided holiness consisted in avoiding sex, a pope who manifested anti-Semitism and megalomania like Pius IX, and -- I can see the mail now -- the founder of Opus Dei, have no appeal to me whatsoever.

While the church's wisdom in deciding who gets official sainthood is clearly galaxies greater than my own on the matter, I wonder as Ken Woodward does in his landmark book Making Saints (1990, Simon & Schuster; updated 1996) if some of these canonizations under John Paul II will come back to haunt the church in the not too distant future.

If they asked my opinion (and so far they haven't called), I'd tell the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints that we need to see more lay people and married couples held up as examples of holiness. I'd suggest that for a few years we put a moratorium on beatifying or canonizing any more bishops, priests, nuns or religious order founders -- admirable and beloved by the members of their dioceses or orders, for sure, but not necessarily models for the church's lay majority.

For anyone curious about the church's saint-making process (or just a fascinating read), there's still no better book, in my view, than Woodward's. A contributing editor at Newsweek and its religion editor for 38 years, Woodward articulates masterfully what the subtitle describes: "How the Catholic church determines who becomes a saint, who doesn't and why" -- and he does so with humor, impeccable research and just enough morsels about ecclesiastical intrigue to keep the reader hooked.

Readers of Making Saints probably have learned more about the church's beatification and canonization processes than they'd like, including somewhat depressing realities about behind-the-scenes intramural politics and the role of big bucks in propelling a cause forward and keeping it on the front burner.

Still, saints, like the church institution in whose orbit they move, are totally human. The moon of holiness has both a bright and a dark side. And in some ways that's reassuring for the rest of us lesser lights.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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