Recently, I got into a vigorous debate with a good friend who is also a good Catholic.
He longs for the eventual canonization of the Irish alcoholic Venerable Matt Talbot (d. 1925). He says the Holy Father should just go ahead and declare him a saint, although Talbot’s intercession hasn’t produced a miracle.
His argument is that, in the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis should show mercy to the ever-growing legion of those addicted by drugs or alcohol by canonizing the former drunk from Dublin. Doing this, he argues, would show addicts the Church understands that their affliction isn’t a weakness, but a true sickness, and she offers them both the temporal and spiritual compassion they need to beat their disease.
As a semi-professional hagiographer who has studied Talbot’s life, I agree he certainly deserves the title of “Venerable,” meaning he led “a life of heroic virtue.” That doesn’t ipso facto make him a saint, however.
I wanted to make the same argument to a nun with whom I recently spoke. Her order’s foundress is up for beatification. When I asked this sister why this “Servant of God” deserves our consideration as an example for us to emulate, she replied in an incredulous, almost-offended voice: “Why, she founded an order.”
No doubt, this spiritual mother was a very good and holy woman. Her body was even found incorrupt. But that doesn’t necessarily make her a saint.
To know whether someone is in heaven, we need a miracle. All any of us — you, I, the consultors for the Vatican’s saint-making office (the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) — can see is the surface of a person. We don’t know what lies inside the hidden corners of a soul. Only God does.
To wit, one book on hell tells the story of a male religious who everyone agreed lived a remarkably holy life. Thus, when he died, his brothers naturally assumed he went to heaven. So imagine their surprise when his apparition appeared a short time later, telling them he was in everlasting fire. The reason? He died with an unconfessed mortal sin.
The story may be a myth. More believable is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 1033 says: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice.”
How many of us have committed a mortal sin and hesitated to confess it out of fear or shame?
But even if a Servant of God or Venerable died in a state of grace, is it not at all likely they are in purgatory and not before the Beatific Vision? The Fatima visionary Francisco Marto — Blessed Francisco, mind you — was counseled he would need to say many Rosaries to avoid purgatory. Our Lady told the children a deceased girl they knew would “be in purgatory until the end of the world.”
One might reasonably ask what anyone so young could have done to merit such a long time in purgatory. But if we know our Catholic faith, then we understand we spend time in purgatory not as a punishment, per se, but to cleanse the temporal effects of sin from our souls.
With someone such as Matt Talbot, is it not conceivable that he is in purgatory? After all, he started excessively drinking at age 12. He didn’t quit drinking until age 28. Let’s be conservative and say he was drunk every day for 15 years. (We know he usually was inebriated, because the day he gave up drinking his mother was surprised to see him sober.) That is 5,475 days of drunkenness. At least once, he stole to get money for drinking. Who knows what other damaging acts to the soul he committed. That is a huge number of mortal sins. (Note: As St. Thomas points out in the Summa, Q. 150, intoxication isn’t always a capital sin.) Yes, our God is perfectly merciful — but he is also perfectly just.
And for reasons we’ll discuss, we need a definitive sign from God before we go declaring his justice satisfied.
It wasn’t always so. For several hundred years, local bishops or communities were allowed to proclaim someone a saint or blessed. This led to “Blessed Charlemagne,” who had eight to 10 known wives and concubines, and of his 20 children, nine were illegitimate. He also had 4,500 Saxons massacred in a single day and said any survivors who refused to receive baptism would likewise die. The Swedes once revered as a saint a man who was killed while drunk.
This is why the Holy See began reserving the canonization process to itself, permanently doing so in 1170 under Alexander III. Since then, popes such as Sixtus V, Urban VIII, Benedict XIV and St. John Paul II have revised the saint-making procedure. But always, miracles have been required.
So why require a miracle as part of the process? As professor Heidi Schlumpf wrote on the process: “Miracles confirm ‘the Church’s judgment regarding the virtue or martyrdom of the Servant of God.’”
God can make this confirmation at any moment. Considering the average length of a beatification (118 years from death to ceremony) and canonization process (an average 49 additional years), Mother Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II were approved for sainthood amazingly quick.
If God wanted to demonstrate that Talbot or, say, Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, a Servant of God, was in heaven at this moment, what would stop him from doing so?
Ultimately, the desire to scrap the miracle “litmus test” is an impatience to see our “saint” raised to the altars. There may be purely altruistic reasons behind this, but the spirit is still the same. But if we get rid of the miracle requirement, then why have a process at all?
Why, indeed. Canonization and beatification aren’t equivalent to induction into a hall of fame. As Jesuit Father J.R. MacMahon wrote: “When the Pope utters the solemn words defining the new saint, he is relying, not merely on human industry or prudence or wisdom, but on the special assistance of the Holy Ghost, and [pay attention here] his definition is infallible.”
Therefore, the Church cannot risk raising up someone for such veneration without definitive proof. The faithful aren’t even supposed to directly pray publicly to a Servant of God or Venerable for their intercession. Instead, we’re supposed to ask God for those prayers. To see that, all one has to do is look at the back of a prayer card for any person who hasn’t yet received beatification. Then compare it to one from a person who has been beatified or canonized. Notice the difference?
Let us be patient. Let us wait on God to do the work that will show forth his glory as he wills it, and not as we do. And let us pray for the souls of those we consider saints but who may actually be in purgatory.
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.