On Oct. 21, just two weeks before the U.S. presidential election, Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven new saints, including Marianne Cope and Kateri Tekakwitha, two American women of remarkable courage who were signs of hope, freedom and joy to those in their midst.
St. Marianne cared for patients with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii, while St. Kateri, the "Lily of the Mohawks," lived a brief, luminous life defending and inculcating the faith at the Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, in New France.
When then-Mother Marianne led a band of Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse in the late 1800s to Hawaii, with the intent of establishing a nursing ministry for patients with leprosy, she was the superior general of the burgeoning religious order and had already established two hospitals in New York. She planned a short visit — and stayed four decades.
St. Marianne, who became known as an "angel of mercy," provided expert medical treatment, but she also strived to bring beauty and joy to her patients as they suffered terminally.
In his homily for the canonization, Pope Benedict expressed his appreciation for Kateri’s ability to live her faith among her own people: "Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life, in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are."
At first glance, these two saints, with deep roots in North America, would seem to have little to offer a nation engaged in a hard-fought presidential campaign shaped by unemployment woes and a ballooning national debt.
But Americans have never been solely concerned with bottom-line issues, and this year is no different. Serious concerns have been raised about social justice for those living in poverty, threats to religious freedom and conscience, marriage between one man and one woman, and the protection of the dignity of life from conception to natural death.
Partisan forces introduced the "war on women" rhetoric early in the election year, after religious institutions and others rejected, on religious liberty and freedom of conscience grounds, the Health and Human Services’ mandate that requires employers to provide contraception and sterilization in their insurance policies.
The controversy touted by mandate supporters as a fight for women’s rights exposes the breadth of moral confusion that equates personal fulfillment with unconditional access to "reproductive rights."
But such assertions falsely present individual autonomy as a default substitute for a human vocation that adheres to moral truths that respect the common good and, at times, demand painful sacrifices.
Many women appear to be wary of constraints on personal freedom — like maternity and even marriage, both in steady decline — yet surveys also chart their rising level of unhappiness with this state of affairs. This emotionally fraught subject also reveals that women are anxious and searching for solutions that can give them real peace of mind.
Like many saints, Marianne and Kateri both were virgins in love with Jesus Christ, and out of this love flowed a spiritual motherhood that nurtured those they served.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus decisively affirms the dignity of women, protecting the widow and calling the prostitute to a new life, forgiving their sins, and raising up the Blessed Virgin as the Mother for all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Jesus asks his followers to love and esteem women, but he does not give them a pass on moral obligations that bind all persons made in God’s image.
Today, Sts. Marianne and Kateri remind the Church — and our nation — that the value and dignity of women does not depend on their marriage status, their ability to bear children or their willingness to make themselves sexually available in transitory relationships.
Their lives mark a prior, foundational relationship with Jesus Christ, the protector of the alienable dignity of every person.
During his homily at the Oct. 21 canonization of the two saints, Pope Benedict told the congregation that the saints’ "configuration to the Son of Man shines out brightly today in the whole Church."
We are thus reminded that the saints can capture our moral and spiritual imagination and dramatically expand the possibilities of who and what we can be on this earth.