Monday, July 28, 2014
Why the Church Needs Saints
When I was a young student studying for the priesthood in the early 1950s in Rome, one of my fellow students told of a visitation of a convent in which the canonical visitor found a small sealed bottle labeled “The Last Breath of Mother Foundress.” We all found that very funny. Sometime later I read in Reader’s Digest that among the objects found with the possessions of Henry Ford was a small sealed bottle labeled “The Last Breath of Thomas Edison.” Somehow this was not so funny. Who would put on display their grandmother’s false teeth? But a museum in Boston has on display George Washington’s false teeth.
No doubt, you’re probably wondering: what is the point of this story? There is something ingrained in human nature to keep souvenirs or relics of loved ones and famous persons. It is also normal for us to have heroes, whether they are soldiers, statesmen, political leaders, persons dedicated to the poor and oppressed, civil rights, etc. Since the first days of the primitive Church, Christians have honored in a special way those who gave their lives for Christ, whether by shedding their blood as martyrs or by their extraordinarily heroic living of the Gospel. We call these people saints and they are very much a part of our Christian faith. As will be seen in the early Church, canonization was not a formal process. Rather, the people spontaneously began to honor and visit the graves of the holy men and women they and their ancestors knew. They visited their graves, celebrated the anniversaries of their death, and asked God to hear the prayers made through them. With time, this became a formal process and was reserved to the pope because of the real danger of recognizing saints who were not in fact saints.
We need saints; we need our own saints who have a special meaning for us because of their ethnic origin, their particular path to holiness, their particular witness to Christ and the Gospel, the time and place in which they lived and died. I heard Archbishop Adam Exner, O.M.I. of Vancouver, say that the canonization of the Korean martyrs had brought many Koreans in his diocese to receive baptism. Should we be surprised by this? We need our own Christian heroes.
Presumably, I was like most students when I had little interest in the canonization course for the licentiate in canon law. The same was true when I followed classes at the Studio Rotale. I must confess that I did little more than study sufficiently to successfully pass the necessary examinations.
It was during my second year teaching at the Faculty of Canon Law at Saint Paul University that I had two phone calls within a few days asking me to assist in causes of saints. The first was from Mère Agathe Gratton, superior general of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa. She asked me to assist as vice-postulator to prepare the diocesan inquiry for the reputation of holiness of their foundress, the Servant of God Elisabeth Bruyère. Later the Sisters of Charity of Montreal called me to help with the process for two miracles for the canonization of their foundress, Saint Marguerite d’Youville, who was canonized in 1990. Needless to say, I got a quick course in on-the-job training in the procedure for the diocesan inquiries for the reputation of holiness and miracles. Since then, I have worked on a number of other causes and have always found it a most rewarding experience. During the actual inquiries I have always experienced the lively faith of the witnesses. I could say that their faith was really tangible and this has always been a real spiritual experience for me.
Unfortunately, very little has been written in English to assist postulators and the officials for diocesan inquiries for causes of canonization. It was with this in mind that I undertook my book, Canonization: Theology, History, Process, with the cooperation of those who have permitted me to include their own works. Since only a handful of copies of the first edition are still in stock, I decided to prepare a second edition. The update includes the most important instruction Sanctorum Mater issued in 2007 by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for conducting diocesan and eparchial inquiries.
We are currently working on the cause for canonization for our own local Father Augustus Tolton. If you would like more information on the cause and on the latest progress, visit www.toltoncanonization.org/.
Fr. Woestman’s book, Canonization: Theology, History, Process, 2nd Edition, has recently been published by St. Paul University. For more of Fr. Woestman’s publications, visit ustpaul.ca/en/faculty-of-canon-law-list-of-publications_351_39.htm.