Final step: a saint

The final step, and goal for all Catholics, is to be a saint. Some will be declared a saint by the Church, others will remain known to those in heaven, for that’s what being a saint is all about: living in the presence of God in heaven. 

As we close out the final week of the liturgical calendar, the Gospel readings for daily Mass remind us to be vigilant for the end — be that the end of the world or the end of our lives. This reminder harkens to the celebrations that began the month, the feast of All Saints and the memorial of All Souls. While we may be waylaid in purgatory to cleanse us of any residuals of sin and heal us of any scars caused by it, we know that we will make it to heaven. We can help the souls in purgatory now by our prayers and acts of charity. Likewise those in heaven are cheering us on and interceding for us. We look to those named saints as role models for our lives and provide spiritual guidance of how to do God’s will. 

Being declared saints first requires living the missions given by God, putting God first in life and sharing His gifts with others. As Bishop Barron says, “Your life is not about you.” Exit living in the ego and accept the role God gives for participating in His will. Illustrating a connection with God by charity in life, perhaps after passing from this life the cause will be taken up to propose sainthood. After passing through the various steps of Servant of God, Venerable, and Blessed, it is with another miracle attributed to intercession of the candidate that the final review and approval of the pope completes the journey to being canonized as a saint. 

The road to sainthood may be fast, happening in mere decades in earthly time, or can linger across the centuries. Canonized saints included the poor shepherd children of Fatima (canonized in 2017) and the Queen of Scotland (canonized in 1250). From the first martyr, Saint Stephen, whose death is documented into the Acts of the Apostles, to Saint Teresa of Kolkata, who died in 1997 and was canonized 19 years later in 2016, the lives of the saints are documented across the span of Church history. Young, old, rich, poor, laity, and religious, there is a saint for each person to find a kindred spirit. 

While it is good to have a spiritual mentor, let us not forget that God calls us to our own mission in His will. He has put us in this time and place to be His hands and voice. Our goal may be to be a saint in heaven, but let us not seek the glory of being declared a saint, but rather accept God’s purpose for our lives and let His glory shine through all the way to heaven. 

Blessed

On the road to sainthood, the third stage is beatification . This changes the person’s title from Venerable to Blessed.

In order for a person to be beatified, a miracle needs to be attributed to their intercession. This can be misinterpreted as the saint causing the miracle, but closely reading official documents clearly indicates that the miracle is via their intercession. Why the distinction? Because only God can perform a miracle. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a miracle is a scientifically inexplicable occurrence by the grace of God through the intercession of a Venerable or Blessed. Often in recent times, an unexplained healing has occurred to a person having a disease or malady to which there is no treatment. By praying to a singular Venerable and seeking their intercession, when a miracle occurs, it seems likely that the Venerable is in heaven and able to intercede on our behalf. Rigorous investigation is conducted by both medical professionals as well as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. If the investigation proves in favor of the Venerable, the cause is presented to the Pope, who will grant the beatification. A special prayer, Mass, or Divine Office may be authorized by the Pope for the candidate, who is now considered Blessed.

How long does it take to be beatified and made a saint? It depends. In researching those with the title of Blessed, I found Blessed Notker the Stammerer. Notker was born around 840 and died about 912. He was beatified in 1512. It took this Swiss monk 600 years to be beatified. And he has remained at that title for over 500 years. Will he ever achieve the title of saint? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Does it really matter if he’s declared a saint here on earth? If he is in heaven, he is with God and he is a saint. Our declaration of him as such means little to him now. In a way, his longevity as a Blessed is an excellent opportunity to look at the how’s and the why’s of sainthood and the process involved in declaring a person a saint. The Church put this process together to avoid declarations of saints by popular sentiment. The Church requires the proof of a miracle so that when we look to a person as a role model of faith, we can be assured of God’s approval. After all, it is God who performs the miracle. 

Yet the process of beatification can also occur quite quickly. Just last October 2020, Carlo Acutis was beatified. This 15-year-old from Italy died in 2006 of leukemia, but left a legacy of devotion to the Eucharist. Carlo is best known for documenting Eucharistic miracles around the world and cataloguing them onto a website, miracolieucaristici.org. The miracle attributed to Carlo was of a young Brazilian boy with a serious birth defect. The boy and his mother attended a prayer service the parish priest organized to encourage his congregation to seek Carlo’s intercession for whatever healing was needed.  The boy was cured immediately after the prayer service and leaves little doubt as to whom to attribute the healing intercession

The road to saint illustrates that the candidates, whether they are Servants of God, Venerables, or Blesseds, seek God’s will in all things. They can only intercede for us; God is the true miracle worker. Their elevation to Blessed is not a glory to them, but rather a glory to God. We thank the Lord for each and every miracle.

Venerable

There are several steps to being declared a saint. It can be a process that takes decades or even centuries. The prerequisite for the process is death. Once a person dies, the diocese at a local level will gather evidence to submit to the Vatican. The hope is that the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints will determine the person’s life is one of heroic virtue. With their recommendation, the Pope will review and declare an upgrade of their title from Servant of God to Venerable.

The package of documentation is quite rigorous and requires sealed or certified originals to ensure authenticity. The Vatican Congregation spends as much time as it needs to pour and pray over the received information, conducting interviews and reviewing the person’s life from many different perspectives. This review occurs in two stages, first by a group of theologians then by the cardinal and bishop members of the Congregation. There are fourteen Venerables identified by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

While preparing a presentation about saints for RCIA, I stumbled upon the story of Venerable Pierre Toussaint. He was born a slave in Haiti, was brought to New York by his master’s wife, and allowed to train as a hairdresser. He was so successful that when the family fell on hard times, he was able to provide for the family that owned him. He was freed at the age of 41 and continued his charity, not only among the poor but also donating in the building of Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in the early 1800s. The story is told that at its dedication when he was refused entrance because of his race, he apologized and turned to leave but was stopped by another usher who recognized him and immediately invited him into the building he helped finance. Both Pierre and Old Saint Patrick’s crossed my path again when “The Oratorio: A Documentary by Martin Scorsese” about the roots of opera in New York City aired on PBS. I was delighted to see Pierre’s story included as part of the history of this church.

In reviewing the life of Venerable Fulton John Sheen, I was surprised to see his birth year as 1895, which seems so long ago. Yet he is no stranger to modern conveniences, as he pioneered television evangelization back in the 1950’s when there were only three channels available. His charismatic style mezmorized viewers both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. To date, he’s the only American bishop to win two Emmys for Most Outstanding Television Personality. Numerous times have I been researching Catholic topics and Google suggests one or two of his Life is Worth Living episodes on YouTube. I alway seem to end up watching in rapt attention, even when it is only in black-and-white! The way he passed on tugged at my heart, as he died in his chapel during Adoration. I don’t think there could be a better way to go.

These two men are another example of the diversity of people and lives within the Catholic family. Each continues to impact people today: Pierre through the support he gave to Old Saint Patrick’s and Bishop Sheen with his television programs. In the Communion of Saints — both named and those on their way, it does not matter if we are separated by a few decades or a century, we are still connected as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. 

Servant of God

November is the end of the liturgical year for Catholics and our focus turns towards the end of time. The readings for Mass take on a sense of ugent remembering for what awaits us at the end of life. It should not be surprising that the month starts with the feast of All Saints. The Church in her wisdom draws our attention to those who are cheering us on from their place in heaven. Yet the path to being declared a saint has several steps, the first is being named a Servant of God.

The process for sainthood begins at a local diocesen level. After a person who has the reputation for living a life of holiness dies, an investigation into their life begins the process of potentially being declared a saint. During this investigation, the person’s life is examined to determine if their life reflected a pursuit of improving their holiness and heroic virtue. Every aspect of their life is reviewed, any correspondence, writings, journals, and the like are scrutinized. While a person’s past may contain some less-than-holy times, it is how the person responded to those times that matters: did they repent and seek a closer walk with God? Once a cause is opened at the diocese level, the person receives the title of Servant of God

I read Black Elk Speaks way back in my college years as part of a Native American Literature class. I remember enjoying the book with its rich details of tribal life. And in researching people who are considered Servants of God, the name Nicholas Black Elk caught my attention. Wondering if the two were related, I was surprised to find out they are one in the same! In reviewing the website supporting Nicholas’ cause, I was amazed to find that he embraced Catholicism and had become a catechist to his people. While it was sad reading his disappointment in how the story of his life only included, as he referred to it, his pagan life, his passionate embrace of God was still equally refreshing. He was proud to be a catechist and the story of his life is not complete unless one includes all of it. He lived about 20 years more after the book was written, and from a Catholic perspective, those were the best years.

I read He Leadeth Me over several months during weekly Eucharistic adoration. It is an amazing reflection of the spiritual struggles of Servant of God Father Walter Ciszek, S.J., who was born in Shenandoah, PA (my parent’s hometown.) After ordination, he served in Poland and made his way into Russia, where in 1941, he was captured as a “Vatican spy.” He spent 20 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps in Siberia, working in dehumanizing and soul-sucking conditions. Yet even here, Fr. Ciszek was able to minister to his fellow inmates (mostly in secret.) And long after his family thought he was dead, his family began to receive letters from him after his release and he was returned to the United States in 1963. 

The lives of these two men cannot be more different, more diverse. Both answered the call from God to fulfill the purpose He had for their lives. Each is a model for us in how to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. No matter if they are officially declared a saint or not, we can ask these holy men to intercede for us in our moments of challenge and affliction. 

Life pursuits

I think most Americans are familiar with the line from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But as Catholics there is one pursuit that ranks above these, the pursuit of holiness.

When we think of a holy person, we immediately think of the saints. But they lived  life on earth just as we do, facing all the temptations that we face. Sometimes they succeeded in the battle against sin and sometimes not. Only two people lived without sin: Jesus and His Mother Mary. There may be a priest or religious that we may consider as holy, chalking it up to their vocation. But holiness is not limited to those professing religious vows. All baptized Christians are called to a holy way of life that will result in eternal happiness with God, and thus also becoming a saint. So what does it mean to be holy?

In the Old Testament, to be holy was to be set apart from the everyday, the ordinary, and to be dedicated to the service of God. God is what made things holy, His blessing and His grace. Israel, as a nation, was to be holy — set apart from the rest of the nations and called to live according to God’s commands. Israel, however, struggled in this endeavor. They sought a king to rule them, just like the other nations around them. Interaction and intermarriage with those nations exposed them to other religions. They soon began to practice them and failed to keep God’s commands. 

How can following God’s commands make us holy? That’s not quite the right question to ask.  We cannot make ourselves holy by what we do, but instead we need to participate and respond to God. We need to seek a relationship with God. If we ask how we can seek this, the answer is by following the Commandments, especially the first three.

First, in order to seek God, we need to put Him first in our daily lives. We need to reach out through prayer, being open to His response. While we may pray through words and speech (or thought), God can answer in a myriad of ways: in another’s response to us, in coincidence, in a surprise or in an unexpected event or encounter, etc. Secondly, we need to be mindful of our speech. What we say indicates our attitudes towards that of which we are speaking. If we deny God’s ability to help us, He will respect just that, even if deep down we wish that He would. If we throw around God’s name, or even the name of Jesus Christ, as if it is like any other word, we abuse any relationship we have with Him. Thirdly, we are called to take time weekly to dive deeper into our relationship with God, dedicating time spent with Him in the Mass as well as other spiritual practices. Lastly, we need to follow all other Commandments and Beatitudes, as a relationship with God does not mean excluding or ignoring everyone and everything that bears the signature of the Creator. 

If we want happiness in our lives, if we want to live free, then we need to pursue holiness first throughout our life on earth. The result will be to have the best life there is: eternal life spent in the presence of God.

Catholic Girl Journey

Dining with the saints

Starting out the month of November with All Saints’ Day has me thinking about the saints with whom I feel a connection. Modifying a question that pops up from time to time: if you could dine with any saint, whom would it be and why?

While that may seem like a wild question, it may not be that absurd. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the message of God preparing a banquet feast is a recurring theme. While some may argue it is used as an analogy, even if the purpose is not meant to eat, there is a gathering taking place. In heaven, it is called the communion of saints.

Since Jesus is the only one who has come to earth from heaven, it’s hard for us who live in time and space to grasp what heaven is and what it will be like. God has given us an imagination and I can’t help but think this is to help us prepare for heaven. While we will be able to see and experience God as He is and He will be all we need, the communion that the Trinity shares amongst the three persons I would think would be mimicked by the communion of saints. Our interaction with other saints may not be to see, hear, and talk to them as we do on earth, but there would be some sort of communication between all members, otherwise we would be in total isolation.

If I was able to talk with only one saint, I think it would be Saint Peter. I would love to hear his stories, from fishing to following Jesus and how much alike he thought they were. I would love to know about his family and how they handled his career change. I also think it would be fascinating to hear how his intercession has helped people over the past 2,000 years.

If heaven does allow us to get to know the other saints in on an individual basis, it may take eternity to get to know each person. What better harmony can there be in heaven, than the communion of saints truly being a family and getting to know one another.

Catholic Girl Journey

Feeding the beast

There is a legendary story, credited to the Native Americans, about the internal struggle using the analogy of two wolves. One has anger, envy, and greed and is considered evil. One has hope, kindness, and compassion and is considered good. As the story goes, the wolf that wins is the wolf that is fed.

The movie Tomorrowland was recently on television, and I happen to come across it right when it started. I had the time, and it seemed interesting, so I watched it. Early in the movie, the father was reminding the young girl that we all have good and bad inside us, using the analogy of the two wolves. This was the underlying theme of the movie. The young girl learns that Tomorrowland has found a way to see into the future, but the more it tries to show humanity the consequences of their bad actions, the more humanity wants to see those consequences eventually progressing until the end of the world is predicted in 59 days. The girl realizes that it’s the broadcast of the constant bad actions and their consequences that is causing mankind to behave so poorly, feeding its destruction. Of course in true Disney fashion, she saves the day and all of humanity by stopping the broadcast. At the end of the movie, the thought that came to my mind was Halloween.

Somehow, over the course of the generations, Halloween has become a major holiday. While the retail spending may not rival other holidays, the time spent decorating, preparing costumes and celebrating can rival many. Even pets get into the spirit with costumes made just for them! But instead of celebrating what this All Hallows Eve or All Saints Eve is supposed to be — the vigil of All Saints’ Day, it has turned into a celebration of horror, gore and evil. Especially in today’s secular culture, the lack of belief in God also translates into a lack of belief in Satan. The movies about demons and possessions are just stories; people enjoy being scared when they know no harm will come to them. But are they feeding the wrong wolf? While Hollywood may have invented the stories they present, real exorcisms are being performed around the world by select Catholic priests trained for that battle. Fighting the devil is serious business, not to be taken lightly.

So this year to prepare for a celebration of all the saints — everyone in heaven, not just the canonized saints — may we invoke their aid by telling their stories, praying for their intercession and praising God for the miracles he allows through them.

Catholic Girl Journey

Wisdom of a paradox

Jesus ate and drank with sinners. His parables included giving more to those who had, and taking away from those who had little, as well as a landowner who paid the same full day’s wage to each worker no matter how long they toiled. And the ultimate paradox, is that through His crucifixion, Jesus saved us, giving eternal life to those who believe. With the bible littered with these examples, how are we to ever understand them so that we can apply the lessons to our lives?

I was knitting recently and started pondering that question, as knitting busys my hands so that my brain can think. Theological ideas can be hard to grasp even when they are straightforward, so wrestling with contrary ideas can be even more complicated. In a pause of my thought process, I turned to my knitting pattern, actually a chart of stitches, to confirm yet again that I was following it correctly. It was then that I realized how much knitting had in common with the paradoxes of the bible.

In knitting, there is really only one stitch, it just depends on which side you’re viewing it. On the “right” side, it is a knit stitch, but that same stitch on the reverse is a purl stitch. By including the reverse, or purl stitch in patterns, all various designs are created. Advanced knitters manipulate these two stitches to create lace, cables, bobbles, and all sorts of shaping. But in the end, it’s all just one stitch.

Then there is the pattern chart, like the one I was using. The “right” side, or that which faces out, starts at the bottom left, and the first row is read from left to right. The even rows are the back or “inside” of the garment and in a chart are read from right to left. Charts often indicate that a blank square equals a knit stitch on the front but a purl stitch on the back. That means reading from left to right on an odd row, I’m knitting the stitches and when I’m on an even row, or the back side, I’m purling those stitches. Why is the chart written that way? So that you can see what the final result of the pattern you are knitting will be.

Putting the lessons from the seemingly contradictory bible passages into practice is like knitting from a chart, only we may not see the whole chart, only the next ‘stitch’ we need to make in our lives. Or we may forget that above and below that knit stitch on the right side of the garment are purl stitches, the ‘backside’ of the knit stitch.

I’m not the first to struggle these seemingly illogical teachings. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, acknowledges that some teachings can be difficult to a logical mind, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the  Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:22-25) Like following the knitting chart pattern, while we may see the big picture of the results, it can be confusing to try to understand the details in the same way. One has to keep on knitting before the chart begins to make sense, usually as the pattern starts emerging. Faith, hope and prayer keeps us open to God’s wisdom, allowing us to get a stitch or two deeper in His mysteries and teachings.

Catholic Girl Journey

Don’t scratch

No matter how many drapes or towels used at the hair salon when I have my hair cut, there always seem to be a few cut hairs that find their way between the collar of my shirt and my skin. After a recent trim, I felt itchy the whole drive home. I so wanted to scratch the itch. I knew that in fifteen minutes I could change my shirt and wipe away any remaining hairs. With every urge to scratch, I reminded myself how close I was to relief. However, the thought of Saint Thomas Moore also came to mind. He wore a hair shirt as form of discipline and penance. Here I was trying to put up with some discomfort for a short amount of time, and this man purposefully welcomed being uncomfortable.

It was only after his death that it became known Thomas wore the hair shirt as penance for his own sins and the sins of his country. King Henry VIII had declared himself head of the church in England so his marriage to his first wife could be annulled.  St.Thomas refused to approve and was eventually imprisoned for it, but he added to his own suffering by enduring this personal penance.  The garment was made of rough cloth, possibly from goat’s hair. The ancestor to this clothing is the sackcloth that is mentioned in the Old Testament. It was worn close to the body to remind the wearer to resist temptations of the flesh. Used by both religious and lay people, it was a rejection of luxury and comfort, and a reminder of the sufferings of Jesus. As Thomas was a man of means and power, and a close adviser for the king, wearing this shirt helped to keep him humble and to remember that he was, “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

I wonder how he got used to wearing it, or if he ever did. Did he begin wearing it for small amounts of time to build up his tolerance? Did he have skin issues as a result of all that irritation? This kind of penance calls me to rethink the comforts in my own life; how attached am I? I don’t know if wearing a garment that irritates the skin is for everyone, but are there other penances that could be just as effective? As we are all unique in God’s eyes, I wonder if we each have our own penances based on our weaknesses and temptations?

The saints provide great examples for us and help us in our moment of need. They challenge us to reflect on our actions and our relationship with God so that we keep moving closer to Him in our daily lives—sometimes embracing discomfort rather than seeking relief.

Catholic Girl Journey

Instant change

I was preparing to lector for a daily Mass, and the reading happened to be Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-20). Part of my preparation is to read out loud, and hearing this powerful passage made me take a closer look.

The writer of Acts does not shy away from bold statements, and the chapter begins, “Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord…” It’s clear that Saul doesn’t just dislike the disciples; he wants to put an end to this group known as The Way, even if it means killing all the followers of Jesus. However, the official letters he requested from the high priest were not for putting them to death, rather that, “he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.” Perhaps he had hoped that these followers could be reconditioned or convinced to return to the proper Jewish practices. Perhaps it’s this passion, this zealousness for God, that makes room in his heart for conversion.

Saul’s encounter with Jesus came in a blinding flash of light that caused him to close his eyes and fall to the ground. In this vulnerable state, Jesus spoke to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The encounter leaves him blind, requiring his fellow travelers to lead him by the hand into Damascus. For three days, he was left in prayer, he neither ate nor drank. What must have gone through his mind during this time? There was probably a good amount of ‘what have I done’ during his meditation. But perhaps all the exposure to the disciples’ teaching started to sink in, including the debates Stephen participated in prior to his martyrdom which Saul witnessed. Is there a deliberate connection between the three days that Jesus spent in the tomb and this three day hiatus in Saul’s life? When he was baptized, Saul’s old life was washed away and new life in Jesus’ resurrection took root, so that “he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.”

Reading the twenty lines of this major transformation makes it seem like it happened in an instant. But it took Saul three days of being blind, praying, fasting to prepare for this baptism and his new life for Christ. He went from being the persecutor to being the persecuted. The results are the fourteen letters he wrote to the Christian communities, timeless messages that continue to be relevant to Jesus’ followers even today.