Walking the Walk

During our chat yesterday, Sacred Heart Radio host Brian Patrick raised the question of what exactly it means that the Church “recognizes the heroic virtues” of a particular person (as it did most recently last month, in the case of three people whose causes for sainthood are being considered).   It occurred to me that this is a good question, and an important one, both because it’s a far more important element in the Church recognizing a person as a saint than many people realize, and because it’s crucial to the way each of us live our own Christian lives as well.

Recognizing a person’s heroic virtues is an essential part of the process that leads to canonization.  There are, of course, dozens of virtues — kindness, patience, purity, modesty, generosity, courage, truthfulness, integrity, humor, empathy, and on and on.  Among them all, seven are primary.  

The four primary human virtues are called the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and love.  To “make the case” that a person should be beatified/canonized by the Church, the promoter of the cause must demonstrate through thorough biographical research that he or she lived out these virtues in a heroic or extraordinary manner. 

Living these in an extraordinary way is really what sainthood is all about.  That’s an important point, because in many people’s minds, being a saint = doing miracles.  When I introduce my high school students to a saint they’re not familiar with, one of the first questions I can expect to get is, “What miracles did they do?”  If my answer is “none,” I get a lot of odd looks, like I’m telling them someone was arrested without committing a crime, or given an award for something they didn’t do. 

That’s partly our (the Church’s) fault, because one part of “the process,” and the one that naturally holds more fascination, is that one miracle is required in order for a person to be beatified, and another in order to be canonized.  But notice, because many misunderstand this: this does not mean that it must be demononstrated that the person in question performed miracles during his/her lifetime.  Most saints performed no miracles during their lifetimes. 

Rather, these are miracles that are attributed to the person’s intercession after his death.  People, familiar with the candidate and his reputation for holiness, pray to him after his death, and obtain a miracle, usually a medical healing, that is sudden and unexplainable by medical science.  (And the investigation into such an event, like the one I mentioned here recently, is thorough.  Several medical experts must testify that there is no scientific explanation.)

The Church requires this as part of the process because it is considered God’s divine stamp of approval on the intention to canonize.  A human can make a mistake in judging whether or not a person lived out the virtues heroicly (witness the drastic differences of opinion currently to be heard about Pope Pius XII — someone’s mistaken).  So the miracle is considered God’s way of saying, “Yes, I agree.”

It’s important that we notice the emphasis on the virtues, because it’s a lesson also in what it means to live an authentic Christian life.  We’re all called to sainthood.  But that’s not to say we’re all called to perform miracles.  Rather, we’re all called to live lives of goodness.  Doing that, doing it even when it’s hard, doing it to a heroic degree — John Baptist de LaSalle’s acts of justice, Thomas More’s prudence, Franz Jagerstatter’s fortitude, Pier Giorgio Frassati’s temperance, Mother Teresa’s faith, Josephine Bakhita’s hope, Gianna Molla’s love — that’s sainthood! 

My students sometimes insist that “letting” people be saints who never did any miracles during their lives is “lowering the bar.”  But I insist right back at them that that’s way off the mark. 

Who, after all, is challenged, if, to be a saint, one must miraculously heal the sick or levitate while praying?  I’m not.  If I have to do that to be a saint, I needn’t bother trying.  But if being a saint means being prudent, just, temperate, courageous, faithful, hopeful, and loving in the specific, concrete circumstances of life in which I find myself, and being these things especially when it would be easier, sometimes far easier, not to — well now, that’s a bit of a challenge, isn’t it?

Fostering a relationship with the saints gives me companions on this difficult journey, examples in the constantly needed lesson that it can be done, and friends who are praying for me, to help me do it.

Oremus pro invicem.  Let us pray for one another.

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