Edited by Margaret, Stephen, and Matthew Bunson (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998, 798 pp., $39.95, on CD-ROM, $49.95)
The Church's job is to make saints,” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, “and she is at her best when she gives them to us.” The Church has been making saints for a long time, and she has plenty to give to the faithful.
The solemnity of All Saints, Nov. 1, celebrates that “great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne of the Lamb” that St. John saw in his vision of the apocalypse (Revelation 7:9). The martyrology (the list of saints and blesseds) compiled by the Church here on earth, while not quite so large, numbers over 6,000 and growing. Indeed, included in the preparations for the Jubilee was an updating of the martyrology, an immense project which took many years to complete.
The faithful who want to keep track of the saints therefore require some help. This new reference work edited by the Bunsons (mother and sons) aims to provide that help. For the most part, it succeeds in providing easily accessible information about the saints, though some factual errors and omissions prevent the work from rising to the level of an authoritative source. Nonetheless, as a starting point for brief, basic biographical information about those whom the Church has beatified and canonized, this encyclopedia is a more than serviceable one-volume reference work.
There are three types of questions people commonly ask about the saints: When did this person live, and what did he or she do? Which saint's feast is celebrated on this day? Who is the patron saint of such-and-such? This means that a reference work has to be organized according to multiple categories all at once, much like a dictionary of quotations needs to be organized both by speaker and subject matter. For example, a mere alphabetical listing of the saints would be of no help to someone who is getting married on a certain day and wants to know which feast it will be, or who the patron saint of wedding receptions is (there isn't one, according to the Bunsons, although St. Pantaleon, patron saint of endurance, might be worth keeping in mind).
The Bunsons do a fine job of steering their readers through the vast amount of information they provide. The main body of the book is an alphabetical listing of the saints, with helpful inclusions of the multiple names of some saints; Edith Stein appears both under her secular name and religious name, Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. The short biographies, rarely more than a paragraph, provide the feast day, dates of birth and death, and pertinent details, usually including state of life, geographical location, and reason for beatification or canonization.
The short biographies, rarely more than a paragraph, provide the feast day, dates of birth and death, and pertinent details
The entries are generally of a high quality, employing economical prose to convey a good deal of information without rendering the volume too cumbersome. Entries on the Church Fathers and canonized popes are especially good, usually highlighting the pertinent controversies where they distinguished themselves. The entry on Pope St. Gregory the Great, for instance, manages to list his many achievements and also gives a sense of the tenor of his times in less than a full page.
A strong sense of history is also evident, and the entries try to distinguish fact from legend, and to clear up confusion. The entries on James the Greater; James the Less and James the “brother of the Lord,” set the reader straight on who is who.
Readers will likely discover the answers to many of their questions in the various appendices that follow the main text. A calendar gives the saints by date, and the glossary defines the various technical terms used in writings about the saints. Documents from Trent and Vatican II are also included to explain the place of the saints in the Church, and a short introduction explains the process of canonization.
The appendices are a treat for those who like lists and categories. Ever wonder who the Doctors of the Church are? Or the Fathers? Or which emblem represents which saint? Or who the apostle of Norway is? (It's St. Olaf.) Such answers are found here, along with lists of canonized popes, feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a list of martyrs who died in what is now the United States. It is likely that most of the dozens of names of the last list are unknown to American Catholics today.
The major limitations of the volume are the errors of fact and the omissions. For example, the wrong feast day is provided for Sts. Cosmas and Damian (who are in the universal calendar on Sept. 26, not 27), and the wrong canonization date is provided for St. Ignatius Loyola (March 22, rather than March 12, 1622). Quibbles? Of course, but the point of reference books is to provide specific answers to just such questions. And reference books should point out delightful facts such as that on March 12, 1622, not only was Ignatius Loyola canonized, but also Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, and Philip Neri. So dates are important.
Also important are some things inexplicably omitted from this encyclopedia. We are not told why the Ugandan martyrs were martyred. We are told Raymond of Toulouse was a chanter, but not that he was a noble figure of Christian loyalty, obedience, and chivalry during the Crusades. In fact, we are not even told that he was in the Crusades. Perhaps a revised edition will include such vital information, and save space elsewhere by some judicious trimming. There are 22 different saints who share the name Saturinus. No loss would be suffered if only the least obscure dozen were excluded.
Nevertheless, as the encyclopedia will be most commonly used for devotional, not research, purposes, it remains a welcome contribution to reminding Christians that holiness must be possible, when so many have already done it.
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Diocese of Kingston, Ontario.