After the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II this April, many Catholics recognized the contributions these men made to both the Catholic Church and the world in general, and the importance of what it means to be a saint. However, it is not often that many stop to think about what saints truly mean to today's lay people, and how the average American Catholic may use the examples of these individuals, but especially American saints in relatively recent history, in their own lives.
Frequently, people turn to saints to offer their prayers and intentions when they are in trouble, need the healing power of God if they or a loved one is sick or injured, or if they are at a low point in their lives and need divine intervention. Many saints did not serve or live in the United States. However, the examples of women and men such as Saints Kateri Tekakwitha, Marianne Cope, Katharine Drexel and John Neumann, all of whom were born or served in the United States, are perhaps relatable examples of saints.
The tradition of saints has a long history in the Catholic Church. According to Father Gregory Faulhaber, vice rector of Christ the King Seminary and director of seminarian formation, the saints, including those who have served this country, are "our forbearers in the faith (who) have provided the foundation for our belief and give examples of how we can continue to grow and develop as true believers."
"The saints were human beings like you or me," Father Faulhaber said. "They walked on this earth, facing daily struggles and hardships, and were able to emulate what it means to be a true Christian in the world. There is a strong connection between the saints and Jesus Christ, who also was a human being and walked the face of this earth. The saints follow closely in Jesus' footsteps and provide more specific witness to what it means to be a true disciple in their specific times and places."
Father Faulhaber, a professor of moral theology who has served in the Diocese of Buffalo since 1979 and is currently completing his 20th year of full-time service at Christ the King Seminary, said he has felt a close connection to the saints in his prayer life since his childhood. With his parents being named Joseph and Mary, the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph were important parts of his life for as long as he could remember and his family often prayed the rosary as part of their daily routine.
"I feel a close connection to the community of the saints every time that I celebrate Eucharist, knowing that we are privileged to be joined with them at table in the same heavenly feast. This is particularly evident to me when I celebrate Mass each weekend at my home parish of St. Mary of the Assumption in Lancaster, where my father's family has been celebrating Eucharist since at least 1850, and it is also true each time we gather for Eucharist at whatever time and place," Father Faulhaber said.
Since its earliest days, the Church has recognized those men and women who have served as exemplary role models for Catholics. However, a formal process was not put into place until 1234, when Pope Gregory IX gave the pope authority over whether a deceased man or woman is recognized as a saint. Normally, no sooner than five years after the person's death, his or her cause is presented to a diocesan bishop. An early candidate for sainthood is named a "servant of God." Once the pope and the Vatican have officially recognized the individual as someone who has lived a virtuous life, they are then called "venerable."
After this, the Vatican requires proof of one posthumous miracle for a candidate to become "blessed." When a second miracle has been c
onfirmed, the pope recognizes him or her as a saint. (Martyrs require only one miracle.) The process is often long, and it requires research into someone's background and proof that none of his or her written works have contradicted the teachings of the Catholic Church. Additionally, the pope has the authority to waive the five-year waiting period.
According to Father Faulhaber, the examples of American saints are ones to which modern Catholics in Western New York may easily relate, since they have been a part of recent history. He added, "They walked the same lands in which we live. They dealt with problems with which our ancestors had to concern themselves, and they modeled courage and faith in the midst of various trials. They help to inspire our faith and give us a boost when we might be tempted to give up in the midst of our daily struggles."
Kateri Tekakwitha was the first Native American saint. She lived during the 17th century and was born in what is now New York State. Marianne Cope was a German-born American who served lepers in Hawaii; however, she did not contract leprosy herself. Katharine Drexel was born wealthy in Philadelphia, went on to serve Native Americans and African-Americans during segregation, and established Catholic schools for African-Americans in spite of racism, anti-Catholic sentiment and vandalism from segregationists. John Neumann emigrated from Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic), became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia and is the only American bishop and male American citizen to have been canonized.
It is the examples of people such as these, Father Faulhaber said, that modern Catholics should strive to follow, although it should be noted that people are not "made" into saints like others today are "made" into celebrities. He said, "When the Church declares someone to be a saint, we believe that we are only making public and declaring officially what God has already done, i.e. welcoming someone to heaven. It is only by God's grace that anyone is able to become a saint, and the Church's declaration only confirms that this person has already been a saint in heaven through God's grace."
Even if a saint did not directly serve or live in the United States, it is still possible for his or her example to touch the lives of those in Western New York. For example, the canonization of the two popes drew the interest of many in the immediate area, as well as among Catholics throughout the world. Additionally, St. John Paul II visited the Buffalo area as a cardinal and many locals met him, and the papal canonizations "strongly confirm their influences and provide models for us to follow."
"I myself was able to have concelebrated Easter morning Mass with St. John Paul II in St. Peter's Square in Rome, being able to stand near him at the altar celebrating Eucharist with the communion of all the saints," Father Faulhaber said. "Many others in Western New York have similar experiences with both popes and others who have been recognized as saints. Such memories remind us of the holiness of these men now declared saints and challenge us to follow their examples of living holier lives ourselves."