Countries like Italy, Greece and Germany each boast more than a hundred native sons and daughters who have been canonized or beatified. Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Spain, England and others have each given thousands of martyrs on their own soil.
And so, when Pope Benedict XVI beatified yet another son of England, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in September, many might have wondered yet again: What about America?
Although there are no upcoming canonizations scheduled for home-grown saints, the Register has been chronicling a very encouraging recent surge in sainthood causes being opened for men and women born in the United States.
Some were once household names: Sheen, Peyton, McGivney, Ciszek. Other names are simply quintessentially American: Capodanno, Kapaun, Casey, Quinn, Coniker, Rother, Baraga, Tolton. The one thing they have in common: U.S. dioceses are petitioning Rome for recognition of their heroic virtue and sanctity as models for American Catholics.
Father Andrew Apostoli, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal and vice postulator for Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonization, sees three reasons for the proliferation.
First, the Church is growing and maturing. Archbishop Sheen himself wrote that America needs a saint from the heartland.
“He was saying it’s important that America has saints because it shows the Church is fertile and fruitful to be able to produce men and women of heroic virtue,” said Father Apostoli. “In a very secularized society, which America is quickly becoming, this is extremely important.”
Second, Father Apostoli believes we’re becoming conscious of this need for saints and “becoming aware there are these saints among us.” While saintly men and women always existed, people don’t often notice, except when in the presence of “obvious” saints like Padre Pio or Venerable Father Solanus Casey, who had approximately 900 miracles attributed to him in his lifetime. “We took people for granted, yet they were living side by side with us,” Father Apostoli said.
Third, recent causes have encouraged others to be brought forward.
“If this person is being proposed for canonization, why can’t this one?” suggested Father Apostoli. “We’re beginning to recognize in our midst we have very holy people, so the Church, in a sense, has come of age.
“The Holy Spirit has prepared the ground.
“In the saints we see the concrete working of the Holy Spirit. He’s the ‘Saint Maker.’”
Father George Rutler, pastor of Church of Our Savior in New York City, author and EWTN regular, sees two more factors for the proliferation of causes. The first is “the increased population, so that one should expect more saints simply because there are more people.” The second is “the communications revolution, which enables causes to proceed more rapidly.”
Sheen and Peyton
In fact, two Servants of God — the first step in the canonization process — were major Catholic figures in communications: Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton.
Archbishop Sheen once had the most popular program on national television. His sainthood cause opened in 2002. Father Apostoli reported that two possible miracles have been submitted for study for Sheen’s beatification. (See ArchbishopSheenCause.org)
The cause for Father Peyton, the “Rosary Priest,” opened in 2001. His international “Rosary Crusades” attracted millions, as did his Family Theater productions on radio and television. The phrase he coined is now known more widely than he is: “The family that prays together stays together.”
Holy Cross Father David Marcham, the vice postulator of Father Peyton’s cause, offered a Mass and ceremony on July 20 to close the diocesan inquiry into Father Peyton’s cause. Results will go to Rome for approval before the next step of beatification. (See HCFM.org)
Addressing the recent proliferation of causes, Father Marcham said, “When you have a wider variety and people more proximate in time to our lives on earth, then there’s a greater chance we can more readily identify with someone whom the Church recognizes lived a life of holiness. It gives us hope that we too could follow in the same path.”
While humble Father Peyton became known internationally during his life, most of the recent candidates for sainthood were better recognized locally or by certain groups. But they fit all of Father Apostoli’s reasons for this “saint boom.”
Venerable Father Michael McGivney was well-known in his 19th-century Connecticut parishes, but the fame of this humble priest who founded the Knights of Columbus didn’t spread until later. In 2009 a reported miracle for beatification was submitted to Rome for examination.
Then there are 20th- and 21st-century Servants of God Father Vincent Capodanno, Father Emil Kapaun, Msgr. Bernard Quinn and Gwen Coniker.
With all of the Iraq and Afghanistan headlines, Maryknoll Father Capodanno and Father Kapaun are examples for servicemen and women, as well as priests and lay Catholics.
A Marine chaplain, Father Capodanno died on the battlefield in Vietnam while administering aid and last rites to dying Marines. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. Since his cause was opened in 2006, many favors of spiritual, emotional and spiritual healing through his intercession have been reported.
Mary Preece of the Archdiocese for the Military Services and vice postulator of the cause, said the cause has made significant progress. Said Preece, “Father Capodanno recognized it was not only a duty to God, but a duty to God and country in radiating Christ to the Marines he served.”
Every September a Mass in memory of Father Capodanno is held in the Crypt Chapel of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (See VincentCapodanno.org)
Father Kapaun’s cause officially opened in his native Wichita Diocese in 2008. An Army chaplain in both World War II and Korea, he died in 1951 ministering to his fellow prisoners of war in North Korea.
Father John Hotze, episcopal delegate for the cause, believes Father Kapaun’s cause “is good for our country and for the Catholic Church in the country — and for him being a local saint” who was a farm boy from Pilsen, Kan.
Many people in the diocese already see him as a saint, said Father Hotze. “He inspires them to realize you can be a good American and good Catholic and be that example of Christ to other people by living out the life you’re called to live out.” (See FrKapaun.org)
In the case of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, whose cause can now move to Rome since the diocesan phase closed July 23, the missionary priest has a following not only in Oklahoma City but in Guatemala, where he was martyred.
Or consider Bishop Frederic Baraga. Known as the “Snowshoe Priest,” he was a 19th-century missionary to Indian tribes around the Upper Great Lakes and became the first bishop of today’s Diocese of Marquette, Mich. His cause opened in 1952, but not until this year was a miracle attributed to his intercession sent to Rome.
Another recent saint development: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. The Mohawk maiden was beatified in 1980, but the miracle for her canonization was not sent to Rome for study until 2009.
Why the Profusion of Causes?
Matthew Bunson cited “the relevance and universality of holiness” as reasons for the proliferation of causes. Bunson is author or co-author of 30 books, including John Paul II’s Book of Saints (OSV, 2007).
“What we’re seeing is the recognition in the 21st century that holiness, sanctity, is as relevant today as ever in the history of the Church,” he said, and added that was one of the themes of John Paul II’s pontificate. The Church canonized many people who lived in the modern era.
“It’s emphasizing the modern relevancy of holiness — that holiness is as meaningful and important today as it ever was,” said Bunson, “and that we need to have these examples, role models, friends, as our guideposts today because of the challenges we face in contemporary society.”
The emphasis on universality of holiness also comes from John Paul II, Bunson said. Saints are not necessarily just priests or nuns or bishops in Europe, but are found everywhere. Bunson said the United States is blessed with so many remarkable men and women in the history of the Church and we’re in the position to recognize that more than ever.
He suggested a third aspect: the greater historical consciousness we enjoy today, recognizing our heritage as Catholics in America. Bunson contended that the recent scandals have forced us to look at the history of the Church in this country, and at the challenges we faced before, such as the bigotry and the anti-Catholic fervor in some of the Colonies.
“We can find role models in these men and women who dealt with crises in their times with profound holiness and fidelity to the Church,” Bunson said.
Bunson admitted Archbishop Sheen is one of his favorites because of his contribution to Catholic social communications at a time when Catholics were still held in suspicion. Another is Servant of God Father Demetrius Gallitzin, “an émigré who gave up immense power and wealth as a Russian prince to serve in the wilderness of Pennsylvania for 40 years literally building the Church, and who was an apologist of the faith at a time of a great deal of anti-Catholic fervor in the country.”
Like several Servants of God, “Apostle of the Alleghenies” Gallitzin has a strong local following, yet someday a “local” might have a larger following.
“I have a particular affection for Monsignor (Bernard) Quinn since he was a quiet and unassuming person and, in many ways, countercultural,” said Father Rutler. And “of people I have known, I think Father Walter Ciszek S.J. was a great saint.” Servant of God Father Ciszek, whose canonization is also being promoted, spent years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union. (See Ciszek.org)
The canonical inquiry into Msgr. Quinn’s cause of canonization opened June 24 in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a pastor, he founded the diocese’s first church for black Catholics in 1922, St. Peter Claver Church, which remains a vibrant parish today. In 1928, he founded the diocese’s first orphanage for black children.
As a chaplain in World War I, he became the first priest to offer Mass in the house where St. Thérèse of Lisieux was raised.
Later, at St. Peter Claver’s, he started a novena to her which became a catalyst for bringing scores of black and white Catholics together, and he named the orphanage in Long Island the Little Flower Children’s Services. The Ku Klux Klan burned the orphanage down twice, but he stood courageous — and alone — against them and prevailed. He worked tirelessly for racial equality and civil rights until he died in 1940.
Msgr. Paul Jervis, Brooklyn’s postulator for the cause, describes Msgr. Quinn as “the quintessential priest and a role model for priests because he loved people totally and especially felt for the poor and downtrodden, the black people in the U.S. who had no one to defend their rights.
“He went out to them as a shepherd, inviting people to come into the Church as he walked the streets. In time, among his greatest admirers were thousands of white Catholics. They came to St. Peter Claver Church for the same reason the blacks came: He loved them.”
Msgr. Jervis added that Msgr. Quinn even put in writing that he was willing to shed the last drop of his blood for the least among his parishioners: “Those words summarize the priesthood of Monsignor Quinn.” (See FatherQuinn.org)
And in the Chicago Archdiocese this year, the cause for canonization opened for a priest who also started a parish for black Catholics, in 1893: Father Augustus Tolton.
Born into slavery, but later ordained in Rome, he became the first well-known black priest. His ministry reached beyond his local community to serve whites also, who were attracted to his love for the Church and for all people.
Other causes opened this century in the United States include those of Servants of God Dorothy Day (2000), Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne (2003), and Gwen Coniker (2007), who founded the Apostolate for Family Consecration and Catholic Familyland with her husband, Jerome, in Bloomingdale, Ohio.
Coniker was a simple, humble wife and mother of 12. She lived in a happy marriage and, going against doctor’s orders to abort her 10th child to save her own life, she chose to give birth — and survived.
Eventually, John Paul II appointed her and her husband members of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Many consider Coniker the kind of saint people need today because of attacks on the institution of marriage. (See GwenConiker.org)
Considering this recent proliferation of causes in the United States, Father Rutler gives a hopeful caveat: “We live in an age obsessed with celebrity, and so there is an instinctive tendency to attribute heroic virtue to people because of their fame or public accomplishments,” he concluded. “Perhaps the greatest saints are known to God alone and will never be canonized.”
(Next issue: The cause for Father John Hardon.)
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.