Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 28, 2002
The 'irrelevance' of the saints
A leading American theologian says the pope should not canonize three saints he is slated to raise to the honours of the altar this year. Father Richard McBrien has concluded that Blessed Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, Blessed Padre Pio, an Italian confessor who physically bore the wounds of Christ and Blessed Juan Diego, seer of Our Lady of Guadalupe, are "bad models for the universal Church."
McBrien says the Church instead needs to identify models of holiness more relevant to the lives of most Catholics.
"Relevance" is a slippery term, meaning many different things depending on who is using it. But the three saints-to-be mentioned above are certainly relevant in one important sense of the word.
More pilgrims journey to Padre Pio's former hangouts in San Giovanni Rotondo than anywhere in the world except . . . the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. As well, the movement Escriva started in 1928, Opus Dei, now has more than 80,000 members making it, by far, the largest organization of consecrated laity in the world.
Popularity may not count for everything in regards to relevance, but it should certainly be one factor in the determination.
McBrien's problem may be not that the proposed saints are irrelevant to the Church of today, but that the Church is leaving behind the "cafeteria Catholicism" which some, unconscionably, have taken to be part of the "spirit of Vatican II." Escriva, Padre Pio and Juan Diego are certainly not politically correct - they were all uncompromisingly devout and faithful to the teachings of the Church.
To say these men are "bad models for the universal Church" is for McBrien to insinuate that they are not fit for us to imitate. Who is he to determine who should be imitated if the Church's extensive investigation procedures have determined the opposite? Who is he to say that only the politically correct are worthy of being models for us?
This is ideological demagoguery.
We might instead rejoice in the seeming irrelevance of the saints. St. Francis of Assisi would likely be judged as irrelevant in 13th century Italy, especially by the progressive forces eager to see the aristocracy overthrown and the merchants gain greater control over society.
St. Ignatius of Loyola no doubt fell from relevance to irrelevance for the 16th century Basque military when he had his leg shattered by a cannonball. His lengthy convalescence was clearly irrelevant and even more so were the years immediately thereafter when he lived in poverty and fasting, cut off from the events of a changing society.
St. Elizabeth Seton was another "irrelevant" one when she turned her back on New York high society life, became a dreaded Roman Catholic and went to live in the backwoods of Maryland for the rest of her life. Whoever would have expected anything of value to come from this no-account woman?
God's ways are not our ways. Anyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus needs to leave the beaten paths and let God build something new through him or her.
It is through the lives of the baptized that God brings together everything in Christ. God's ways are a great mystery to us and too bold is the one who claims that one person's life is relevant and another's irrelevant. All we can see for certain are the signs of holiness in a person's life and those signs of God's pleasure with that person exhibited through miracles.
Those are no guarantee of relevance, but they are signs of something much greater - a life lived in exemplary union with God. The Church is right to canonize those who meet those exalted standards rather than those who somehow fit the canons of political correctness.
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