Until last week, the Catholic Church gave two ways for the faithful departed to qualify for sainthood. The first way was to prove the candidate died martyred in odium fidei (because of hatred of the faith). The second was to prove he or she had lived a life of heroic Christian virtue.
On July 11, however, Pope Francis proposed a third category, oblatio vitae (“the free offering [i.e., sacrifice or “oblation”] of [one’s] life,” with the publication of his legislative text Maiorem Hac Dilectionem (“Greater Love Than This”).
This new path to beatification has saint watchers hopeful for the continuation of certain canonization causes.
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and an authority on the Communion of Saints, applauded the Pope’s document, telling the Register, “It’s so important that the Church make a case that its saints are relevant, and another path to beatification” does that by “helping people see how the saints are relevant to their lives.”
Well-known blogger Father John Zuhlsdorf also reacted favorably, writing, “In principle I think that this is a good move,” adding the new category “fills a gap.”
According to Catholic News Agency, “Though similar to martyrdom, this definition fits those … who have in some way given up their life prematurely for charity.”
Pope Francis took the title of his document, issued motu proprio (of his own accord), from the Gospel of John (15:13): “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
In the document, the Holy Father notes those who qualify for this new path to beatification “are worthy of special consideration and honor” because they, “following in the footsteps and teachings of the Lord Jesus, have voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others and have persevered until death in this regard.”
The new category’s criteria include the:
- link between the offering of life and premature death;
- exercise, at least in an ordinary manner, of the Christian virtues before the offering of life and, then, up to death;
- existence of a reputation for holiness and signs, at least after death;
- necessity of a miracle for beatification, occurring after the death of the “Servant of God” and through his intercession.
One intriguing aspect of the new legislation is the statement that the person has exercised “at least in an ordinary manner … the Christian virtues before” offering his or her life.
Causes of Interest
Canon lawyer Father Luis Escalante, an authority on saints’ causes, says this means the person need not have been another St. Gemma Galgani or Padre Pio. However, as Father Zuhlsdorf notes, “ordinary” does not mean “mediocre.”
Father Escalante believes one person who would qualify under the new classification would be Servant of God Salvo D’Aquisto. D’Aquisto, a Carabiniere during World War II, took the place of 22 Italians whom the Germans chose to die in retaliation for one soldier’s death.
Perhaps the most famous American potential saint who could qualify under this new heading is Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno.
Father Capodanno was a Maryknoll priest and a Navy chaplain in Vietnam. During a battle, he left his company command post’s relative safety and ran into enemy fire to help wounded Marines and administer last rites. A mortar round left him seriously injured, but he refused to evacuate.
Seeing a dying corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine-gunner, he gallantly attempted to aid the man. Only inches from his comrade, the gunner found him as his next target.
The vice postulator of Father Capodanno’s cause, Mary Preece, told the Register her team is “delighted” by this new path to beatification, saying it “might expedite the process because … this [giving of life] is exactly what Father Capodanno did.”
Some have suggested another U.S. chaplain, Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, who died in a Chinese POW camp, might also benefit from the new category. It is true the only reason he was a POW was that he wouldn’t abandon his men.
However, like the parish priest and Servant of God Demetrius Gallitzin, there was no clear connection between an offering of life followed by death.
As Father Escalante told the Register, “There must be a nexus between an offer of the person’s life and his death,” adding, “So the offer of the life is not a generic offer of life to the Lord. It’s an exchange of life.”
Thus the new category would likely not apply to someone like Blessed Maria Sagheddu, a Sardinian religious who offered her life as a spiritual sacrifice for Christian unity.
It could, however, apply to Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, seminarian Brian Bergkamp, whose death resulted from his saving a fellow kayaker. As reported in a past Register story, his seminary rector reflected, “In his life, and most especially in this moment, Brian was a true friend of Jesus. Like the Master, Brian laid down his life for another. He was a doer of the word and not a hearer only.”
There is also Father Thomas Byles, a priest on the Titanic who some want to see beatified. Although offered several chances to escape, Father Byles stayed on the doomed ship to pray with the passengers, hear confessions and give last rites. A somewhat similar situation is found with World War II Army chaplain Father Joseph Lafleur, whose beatification cause may soon be introduced.
And this category would appear to apply to the so-called “Ebola Sisters” and the Trappists of Algeria, made famous in the movie Of Gods and Men. It might even apply to a young Guatemalan boy who died rather than sin by committing murder.
All who follow Christ long for a happy death. In terms of sainthood, that has previously come either at the hands of a persecutor or from the ending of one’s normal course of life.
Now we have a third category, the charitable giving of one’s life. As a Register review of the aforementioned film states, “Of Gods and Men is not about how the monks died, but how they lived and why they were willing to die.”
Brian O’Neel writes from