Holy Helpers

July 22-Aug. 4, 2004
Holy Helpers
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
Since his election in 1978, Pope John Paul II has elevated more people to sainthood than all of his predecessors combined. He has declared nearly 500 saints and put another 1,700 holy individuals on the road to sainthood by naming them blessed.

Saints are popular today. Oftentimes, people invoke saints for guidance or inspiration. They also play an important role in Catholicism, providing human models of sanctity. Although extraordinarily holy, saints posses the same fallible weaknesses as everyone else. Yet they are models of righteous men and women in spite of their human frailties. “What sets them [saints] apart was that they lived their ordinary lives –– just like ours –– in an extraordinarily virtuous way,” said Father Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of Lives of the Saints. “They were not simply kind to other people; they were heroically generous, self-sacrificing and even courageous in their outreach to the poor, the sick, the powerless and the socially marginalized.”

Until the turn of the century, a great number of saints were martyrs for the faith. Pope John Paul II, however, has gone out of his way to canonize people drawn from the ranks of ordinary men and women –– diverse role models with whom even the most common person can find something in common. Recent candidates for sainthood include gypsies, itinerant preachers, even an illiterate horse trader known as El Pele who was shot during the Spanish Civil War. Pope John Paul II has said that he wants the Catholic Church to honor Christ by acknowledging His “presence through the fruits of faith, hope and charity present in men and women of many different tongues and races.” When the pope travels to developing countries, he frequently brings along the gift of a newly beatified or canonized local.

The pope has been criticized at times for producing such a large number of saints. Father Peter Gumpel, SJ, of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, Italy, believes that his holiness is not motivated by increasing the number of saints, but rather by canonizing individuals from all walks of life. “If you want to cater to a different number of people, then you have to provide many examples,” said Father Gumpel. “If you can present saints who lived in the same conditions you did, then it shows that this has been done and this can be done. If they became saints, then you can to it too.”

The road to sainthood

In the first eight or nine centuries there was no formal process of canonization. The first saints typically were martyrs who were stoned or otherwise tortured for their faith. Saints were chosen by popular acclaim until the Vatican took control of the canonization process, giving the Catholic Church the final say over who was named a saint and who wasn’t. The first saint to be officially canonized was Ulrich in 993 A.D. The revised edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, published in 1956, lists 2,565 saints. The book is now undergoing another revision. The formal process of canonization involves a complicated procedure taking time, money, testimonies and miracles, and the church follows a strict set of rules in the process. The cause for canonization isn’t started from the top, said Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, who serves as cause director for the sainthood of Mother Marianne Cope, OSF. “It has to start from the bottom,” she said. “You have to get people together who believe in the person they are working for. The true measure of a saint is to see how many people will give of themselves for his or her cause.”

It used to take up to 30 years for an investigation to be completed. But changes made in 1983 by Pope John Paul II make it easier and faster to decide who qualifies. The process to sainthood cannot begin until at least five years after the candidate dies. After the passage of five years, there is an investigation of the prospective saint. Usually, the local bishop appoints a postulator to direct the process, interview witnesses and gather evidence about the quality of the candidate’s life. “Saints are measured in the condition of their own times,” explained Sister Mary Laurence, “but they have to be relevant for our time. We must be able to call on their examples when we are in similar situations.”

After the documents are complete, a relator sifts through the information and prepares a position paper. If the volumes of evidence prove a life of heroic virtue, the person is given the title “venerable” by the pope. The next title, beatified (blessed), is attained if it can be proven that a miracle occurred as the result of someone praying through the intercession of that person. Verifying a miracle is considered the most difficult hurdle in the process. To help verify potential miracles, the Vatican calls on the expertise of medical doctors. “We ask them [medical doctors] if they can give us, on the strengths of their knowledge, a medical explanation for what occurred,” said Father Gumpel. “They are the ones who can ask the appropriate medical questions.” To finalize a canonization, it must be established that a second miracle occurred. (Martyrs are the exception. The pope can reduce their miracle requirement to one or waive it altogether.) The second miracle opens the door to sainthood. From that point on, the decision belongs to the pope. Currently there are more than 1,000 official candidates for sainthood at the Vatican. “The only real judge in the matter is the pope,” said Father Gumpel. “It is his private, personal privilege to declare a saint.”

Mother, doctor, lover of life

Wearing her wedding dress and a veil covering her forehead, Gianna Beretta Molla might not be the typical picture of a saint. But underneath the gown there was an extraordinary woman of faith who sacrificed her own life so that her unborn daughter could live. On May 16, 2004, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II. Discovery of a fibrous tumor in her ovary during her second month of pregnancy led Gianna, 39, to make a heroic decision. She refused a medical procedure that would save her own life but would cause the death of her child. A few days before the child was due, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child, telling the doctor: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate. Choose the child — I insist on it. Save the baby.” On April 21, 1962, Gianna Emanuela was born, and seven days later her heroic young mother died of complications in giving life to her fourth child.

Gianna was born in Magenta (Milan), Italy, on October 4, 1922, the tenth of 13 children. After earning degrees in medicine and surgery from the University of Pavia in 1949, she opened a medical clinic in Mesero (near Magenta) in 1950. She specialized in pediatrics at the University of Milan in 1952, giving special attention to mothers, babies, the elderly and the poor. She became engaged to Pietro Molla, an engineer, and they were married on Sept. 24, 1955, in St. Martin’s Basilica in Magenta. Three children were born in the first years of their marriage. In 1962, after a series of miscarriages, Gianna began the pregnancy which would end her life. Her husband Pietro has described Gianna’s life as “an act and a perennial action of faith and charity; it was a non-stop search for the will of God for every decision and for every work, with prayer and meditation, Holy Mass and the Eucharist.”

On April 24, 1994, Pope John Paul II beatified Gianna in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The pope said that her witness was a hymn to life. At the beatification ceremony, the Holy Father said that Gianna’s action for life was possible only after a life of preparation. St. Gianna Beretta Molla continues to remind the church and the world of the necessity of a consistent ethic of life. Her selfless act of love calls others to a lifetime of sacrifice.

Holy role models

Not every Catholic who lived a life of heroic virtue is named a saint. It is difficult to determine what type of Christian serves as the best model of sanctity. There are hundreds of individuals who, though not publicly venerated, have displayed extraordinary, faith-filled lives which are admired and emulated. On Dec. 2, 1980, members of the National Guard of El Salvador intercepted a van carrying four American churchwomen as they were leaving the international airport in San Salvador. Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan were taken to an isolated spot where they were abused and shot, then buried in a shallow grave along a roadside.

The women were working in the country on behalf of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, helping refugees flee the violence of the erupting war. Their work, in support of the Salvadoran Church, involved ministering to the needs of refugees, shepherding priests on the run, delivering supplies and offering comfort to the shaken. Each woman had followed a different path that would bring all four together for a common cause. Sisters Ita and Maura had spent many years as missionaries in Nicaragua and Chile. Sister Dorothy spent the longest time in El Salvador. Donovan, 27, grappled with the idea of marriage and a lucrative career before choosing to remain in El Salvador, working among the poor. All four women knew the tremendous risks involved in their ministry. Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated only nine months before they were killed. Yet their faith inspired them to carry on.

“One who is committed to the poor must risk the same fate as the poor. And in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, to be tortured, to be captive, and to be found dead,” said Sister Ita on the night before she died, quoting Archbishop Romero. Though not elevated to sainthood, these women are martyrs who were called to live out their faith in solidarity with the poor.

The legacy of St. Gianna Beretta Molla and of the four martyred women of El Salvador inspires Catholics to be a little more like them –– a little more holy. Their stories speak to Christians, reminding them that their primary calling is to “be holy in all conduct” (1 Peter 1:25). They show that sanctity can be achieved anywhere.

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