By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Pope Francis has now canonized over nine-hundred candidates, including a recent batch of ten on May 15. Among their number are eight who are quite obscure, not registering on the national never mind international radar screen, and who are mostly founders of religious congregations. The remaining two, Titus Brandsma and Charles de Foucauld, have well known reputations in both church and secular circles.
Obscurity is, of course, no deterrent to “official sainthood.” The trend to beatify and canonize large numbers—initiated with John Paul II, who retains the all time record for canonizations—appears not to be diminishing as much as one might have thought during the Bergoglio pontificate.
Various figures “raised to the altars” by Francis include some high level celestial celebrities: Marie of the Incarnation and Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval, who matter greatly in the early history of Canada; Louis Martin and his wife Marie-Azélie Guérin Martin, the parents of Thérèse de Lisieux, who constitute one of the very rare spousal combos; two iconic figures revered as saints long before their official sainting, Mother Teresa of Kolkata and Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero; and a smattering of popes, John Paul II, John XXIII, Paul VI.
For me, the genuine highlight so far in this pontificate is the canonization of that lustrous mind and towering presence in Christian history, John Henry Newman.
We all have our favourites.
But the glaring lack among the officially recognized holy ones of laity, most especially married laity, is stark, massively disproportionate, and in the end, unjustifiable. John Paul II himself complained bitterly that married people were scarce on the ground and he instructed the saint-makers to augment the pool. But with few results in the end.
Why is this so? Certainly, lay people lack the connections, the requisite funding, the lobbyists who advance a cause for sainthood from gestation to consummation, the focussed resources that you find in the religious and clerical spheres, the familiarity with the process and the motivation, and finally the scholarly and juridical expertise and energy to see a case move forward to its conclusion.
A perfect example of one dedicated person who has done precisely this to date is publisher and writer Robert Ellsberg, researching and promoting the cause of Dorothy Day with herculean patience and savvy.
But the paucity of married—happily married couples—is an arresting reminder of how inadequate our sainting process is and, given the skittishness with which church authorities approach the role of sexuality in the life of the married couple, we shouldn’t really be surprised. But we should be scandalized.
The church is comfortable with virgin saints, or saints who have sworn off conjugal sexual activity and decided to go their separate ways in religious life, or saints who have made accommodations by opting to live as a celibate married couple, but this is all so very strange and reflects a centuries-long hostility to, or more precisely fear of, the body qua body, the body as a seat of mutual pleasure rather than the body as an instrument of reproduction.
Time to celebrate the sanctity of married people in their wholeness, in the their bodily integrity, in their own struggles to be holy and faithful. There are plenty of them around if we have eyes to see.
The saints attest to the multiple ways that we seek God. As the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles once observed:
the many ways of getting down on one’s knees, in the
hope . . .that there is in this cosmos the listening, the
watching, and, not least, the judging, the sorting, which so
many of us, for so long have sought, prayed for, spent lives
wondering about, waiting for—God. In all the mystery of the
word, in all the perplexity and frustration that the word can
Because the saints have given themselves over to that “mystery, that perplexity and frustration” that we call God, and because they are the true stalkers of the holy, they speak to our collective need for transhistorical meaning, for perpetuity, to be “alone with the Alone.” The saints are not an antidote to our agnosticism. They are a still point in the whirligig that is life, an aperture to wholeness.