During our new church’s recent dedication Mass, a litany of the saints was sung. Two cantors led us through a long list of saints, followed with the request after each, “Pray for Us.” The list included names such as Cosmos, Damien, Fabian, Sebastian, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes and Cecilia.
Just who are/were these people with such archaic-sounding names, and why do Catholics call on them or bother to remember them at all? What is their relevance to our lives, and aren’t we just placing more things between ourselves and Jesus by inviting them into our lives?
The Church comprises many holy people, some of whom walk among us. After all, we’re all called to be holy. Yes, even with all our deficiencies, it’s true. Some of the most revered canonized saints began their adult lives in serious, fairly constant states of sin. But in the end, they took up the call to be holy. They repented, turned fully toward God, and spent the final years of their lives wholly committed to Him. They became so close to God that miracles can be attributed to them. In fact, that is one of the requirements of the beatified (a holy person to whom we bestow the honor of “Blessed”) and the canonized (a holy person officially named “Saint” by the Church).
If we wish, we can look to these models of faith in our own journeys toward holiness, as well as the saints among us. Too, we can call on them for assistance as we grope along the path toward heaven. The Church leaves the particulars to us, but the examples are there should we need them. The difference between the saints in our neighborhoods and those who have been officially named as such is the difference between a life that has yet to unfold fully and one that is, for earthly purposes, finished.
I see the Church’s wisdom here. When I was writing my children’s book, P is for Peace Garden: A North Dakota Alphabet, my editor warned me not to highlight any living North Dakota heroes. Roger Maris, Lawrence Welk, Hazel Miner and Anne Carlsen – all those mentioned had passed on, some more recently than others. As we all know, even the most admirable people can fall from grace. We’re all sinners, after all, all prone to human weakness and poor choices. The publisher felt it would not be prudent, or fair to the children who would read the book, to introduce heroes who still stood the chance of a tarnished reputation.
And so, the canonized saints of the Church are those who have ended their lives in a state of grace, who have stood the test of time, and have, by their keen attention to God, prompted miraculous events. We honor them because we all need heroes, in every age, and whether the saint died in 699 A.D. or 2000 A.D., they are there for us to gaze upon if we wish so that we might be more empowered to take up the call of holiness, too.
I’m immersed right now in the book, My Cousin The Saint. It’s written by Justin Catanoso, an Italian-American who rediscovers his childhood faith through discovering one of his father’s cousins is in line to be canonized by Pope John Paul II. It’s a remarkable book detailing the life of the Italian saint Gaetano Catanoso, who died in 1963 and was among the last batch of saints whose canonization was set in motion by JPII.
The author describes one of the miracles that contributed to the eventual canonization. It occurred just an hour or so following Gaetano’s death, when Sister Paolina Ligato began praying to him at his bedside. The nun had spent half her life suffering from the crippling symptoms of acute bronchial asthma, which had severely inhibited her work as a kindergarten teacher. Many moments of her days ended in her coughing and gasping for air. She’d asked Padre Gaetano to cure her many times; instead, he would simply bless her and say, “Suffer and offer, dear sister, suffer and offer.”
And so, for more than 20 years, she listened. But on the day of his death, she prayed again, asking for a miracle, believing he might have even more power to help her in death than he had in life. Moments later, she felt what she described as a warm shiver pass through her body. She rose and leaned over to kiss the priest’s hand then went to bed, and when she awoke several hours later, she felt another strange sensation – the ability to breathe deeply without fighting the urge to cough – a sensation she recognized from years before. She took another deep breath – again, no problem, for the first time in many years. From then on, she breathed easily and painlessly. Doctors deemed it a miracle, and after careful study of her case, this miraculous recovery was added to evidence being collected in favor of Padre Gaetano’s canonization.
Miracles such as this confirm the reality of the world beyond ours, as well as its power, which exceeds that of our present world. It also gives us hope in what is possible when we live for and surrender to God.
In a world so full of fallen heroes, we need some who stand out as exemplary. The saints of the Church give us plenty of solid role models, as do those around us who live faith-filled lives. Those who have gone before us can pray on our behalf, just as a good friend will if we were to ask. We can go straight to God with these requests, but oftentimes, in our humanity, we turn to a friend or relative with an urgent request: “Can you pray for me?” It’s the human thing to do. It does not take away God’s power or role in our lives.
I also love the fact that there are saints in heaven for every purpose under heaven. The patron saint of communications, for example, is St. Francis. One of my personal favorites is St. Bernadette, in part because I grew up in Our Lady of Lourdes parish, which hearkens to Bernadette’s visions of Our Blessed Mother in Lourdes, France. Name your occupation, hobby or disposition and a saint can be matched to the particulars of who you are.
I’m grateful for all the saints, those on earth and those in heaven who help remind me of where I’m going. And as a believer in the Communion of Saints, I can rely on their holy examples as often as necessary. These holy people are anything but obstacles between me and my Lord. They are anything but stodgy and irrelevant. Instead, they are shining guides, helping me in my journey toward heaven.