Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 27, 2006
Saints subvert complacency
Higgins haunted by the holy ones
"In a culture that reverences celebrity, . . . the saints are both an attraction and a mystery,"
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Holiness isn't about perfection or about the pure, antiseptic, pious and dry individual. Holiness is about drama, excitement, brokenness and struggle, says author Michael Higgins.
"The saints are the heart and core of what it means to be human in their struggle to be in God's presence. And they have a special role - to serve as models for us."
Higgins, president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont., delivered the Anthony Jordan Lecture Series March 17-18 at Newman Theological College.
The series - Models of Holiness: Is Sanctity in a Time Warp? - was sponsored by Newman College and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Nearly 150 people registered for the event.
Higgins, a prolific author and media commentator on religion, gave three lectures, beginning with The Why and Who of the Saint Business.
Stalking the Holy
His new book, Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making, is both a personal quest as well as a serious study of the complex, quirky and endlessly-shifting paradigms of holiness.
"From the beginning, I have been haunted by saints," he admits in the book. "No exorcism will work, so I have simply given in to their irresistible power."
What goes into the making of the saints and why do we need them? "In a culture that reverences celebrity, that provides more than enough to the public hunger for gossip, that is prepared to see politics and entertainment as one, and that cannot escape the frenzy of the now, the saints are both an attraction and a mystery," Higgins says.
Books, audiocassettes, CDs and DVDs that focus on the saints abound. St. Joan of Arc even has her own website.
Higgins argued both in his book and his lecture that the radical summons to sainthood plays itself out in the drama of history in widely different ways. Saints subvert our complacency.
"We are drawn to the lives of the saints because they give us access to their inner struggles, defeats and triumphs. Imitation may be the supreme form of flattery but it can be deadly with the saints. Think of the martyrs."
Catholics have been exhorted to aspire to sainthood from the beginning.
"On the road to holiness are the saints and they are there for Catholics to imitate, venerate and invoke," Higgins said. "All Catholics are called to sainthood and many indeed are saints, but only a handful are officially recognized as such.
As Higgins points out, the saints - their stories, their witness, and their lives - provide a solid dose of romantic imagination. They are an antidote to the sterile theologizing that mars much religious thought and a spur to bold ventures of spirit and heart.
The model saint is capable of heroic self-emptying and it is the quiet drama of that mode of living that most inspires people. "Still, the electrifying gesture that is martyrdom grabs our imagination with an immediacy that transcends the plodding beauty of a daily loving for others," Higgins writes. "In other words, the high drama of Oscar Romero's assassination is more gripping than the short, painful and luminous witness of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, John Paul's II's first canonized saint of the millennium."
The process of "sainting" involves several steps but the ultimate one is canonization, meaning adding to the canon or the list those officially declared as God's intimate companions, Higgins noted. "Depending upon the time, the pope and the saintly candidate's lobbying apparatus, the time before beatification can be considerably longer than that which elapses between the penultimate stage and the ultimate stage."
Under Pope John Paul II, whom Higgins called the saint-maker par excellence, candidates for officially recognized holiness had a streamlined process. In a bid to give his flock more role models he made more saints than his predecessors over the past 500 years combined - a total of 476 - plus 1,315 blesseds. Among them, Maximillian Kolbe, Sister Faustina, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, Juan Diego, Jacinta and Francisco of Fatima.
An alternative way
"John Paul made sure that as many nations as possible would not lack saints," Higgins said. "He understood that when a nation lacks saints, darkness invades people's minds. In a way, he saw saints as celebrities, as people who call us to an alternative way of living."
Saint making in the Catholic Church is the most democratic process there is for the Church never begins a cause for canonization until it asks the faithful whether the person nominated has a reputation for holiness, Higgins observed.