by Matthew Bunson, Margaret
Bunson and Stephen Bunson
(Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1999, 368 pages, $19.95)
So many new saints! It seems like almost every month Pope John Paul is canonizing or beatifying someone whose name most of us have never heard before. During his latest trip to Poland, the Holy Father beatified more than 100 more men and women — and I, for one, am curious to hear their life stories.
Well, for those new Polish blesseds, we will have to await the second edition of this book by Matthew, Margaret and Stephen Bunson. For now, John Paul II's Book of Saints gives a brief account of the lives of more than 600 men and women previously canonized or beatified by this Pope.
The number jumps up so high because some were honored as groups — for example, more than 80 were beatified as martyrs of the English Reformation. Another 70 were slain together during the Spanish Civil War. While Ernest Hemingway was fighting in, and writing about, that war, these holy men who escaped his notice were dying in testimony to another world. They were members of an order dedicated to caring for the sick and abandoned, the Hospitallers. Aged 19 to 76, they “all died brutally [at the hands of the Spanish revolutionaries], guilty only of being Catholics and devout religious.”
Even the most cynical reader will find stories in this book that cannot fail to captivate the heart. For example, Pope John Paul had the occasion to canonize a friar about whom he also wrote a play — Albert Chmielowski, “the Brother of Our Lord.” After losing a leg while fighting for Poland's freedom in the 1860s, Albert became a beloved artist in his native land. Later, he gave up painting to begin a life of serving the poor, centering “his labors on the poorest and most destitute in Krakow.” He founded men's and women's branches of the Servants of the Poor, also called the “Gray Brothers” and “Gray Sisters” because they held the ideal of “becoming the brothers and sisters of all whom they served.”
Noting an aspect of Albert's life that would probably be the same if he lived today, the Bunsons say, “Albert preached that one of the greatest calamities of the time was the fact that the majority of human beings refused to see the truly wretched state of modern society, thereby absolving themselves of the fundamental obligation to strive to correct these evils.”
Another person beatified by John Paul II was the layman Pier (Peter) Giorgio Frassati. Peter was “an avid skier and mountain climber.” He was outgoing and charming. “Literally thousands came to pay their respects” when he died. Peter's secret? A spirituality of prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to Mary, thirst for the Word of God in Scripture, uncompromising chastity, charity toward the needy, and faithfulness in the ordinary duties of life. At age 24 he died of polio that he had contracted while visiting an abandoned sick person.
Why so many saints? The answer slowly dawns on the reader.
Peter's father was a senator of Italy, an ambassador to Germany and the founder of La Stampa magazine. That is, he was involved in politics and media. Considering the reputation of these fields today, one may wonder how a saint could arise in such a situation. But one of the lessons of this book is that holiness knows no boundaries — we can find it everywhere.
Some have criticized the Pope for beatifying and canonizing so many. But, throughout this book, the meaning of the John Paul's reason slowly dawns on the reader.
In my case, it became noticeable as I began to recognize several names who were friends — or, in one case, family — of men and women I know. That started me thinking of other friends of friends, not yet listed here, whose cause for beatification has been initiated. There are quite a few. One lived near my last address and another lived near my current address. This brought to mind still others — future saints alive today who I have met, talked with, received Communion from — who will surely be canonized one day.
The Pope's revolution begins to sink in. He has made it apparent that heroic sanctity exists all around us! Anyone who has lived in Europe could easily share my experience because many of the individuals in this book became known through their sufferings at the hands of the Nazis. One is Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite journalist and professor of mystical theology.
Titus was imprisoned and later killed for openly opposing what the Nazis were doing. Another prisoner serving as a nurse's aide was ordered to execute him by lethal injection. Exemplifying the teaching of Romans 12:17 — “Repay no one evil for evil” — Titus gave the nurse's aid his rosary while she was preparing the injection. Later she testified to his great charity and holiness during the inquiries that led up to his beatification.
Pointing out that such charity “is perhaps the greatest trial of man's moral strength,” Pope John Paul II said, “In the midst of a concentration camp, which remains the shameful blot upon this century, God found Titus Brandsma worthy of himself.”
Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, in his foreword to the book, recounts a conversation at the Vatican with the archbishop of Hanoi at a time when the Church in Vietnam was suffering a serious persecution. The cardinal says, “Knowing the tremendous problems he had to face, we asked him what we could do for him. To our surprise he answered: ‘Send us lives of saints!’ He explained that his people need more than anything else to see that it is possible to follow in Christ's footsteps and to remain faithful even when it requires heroism.”
We could add that we need to read lives of saints like those in this book in order to remain faithful even when it does not require heroism.
Gerry Rauch is an assistant editor of the Register.