Why aren’t there more saints from the United States of America?
Granted, we have a handful (although only three of them — all women — were born here). And, true, some promising sainthood causes are going forward.
For instance, on Oct. 30, 2013, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., sent the results of its investigation into the beatification cause of Servant of God Father Demetrius Gallitzin to the Vatican.
A Russian prince, Gallitzin was born into the Russian Orthodox Church but became Catholic at age 17. At 22, he came to America, entered the seminary and received ordination three years later, making him one of the first priests to take holy orders on American soil. He died in 1840.
This is great news for the Church in the United States, as it means yet another of our citizens (even though he was naturalized) is progressing toward the altars.
So, too, is Servant of God Mother Mary Teresa Tallon, foundress of the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate. As reported by the Register, the U.S. bishops voted on Nov. 11, 2013, to promote her cause for canonization. This is extraordinary in the truest sense of the word.
These two individuals are among the more than 100 Americans with canonization or beatification causes going forward, a list that includes six blesseds, 16 venerables and 78 servants of God. Additionally, there are more than 40 individuals who have been suggested for canonization but who have not had a formal cause initiated in their names, including the miracle worker Father Aloysius Ellacuria.
This is all incredibly positive. However, I would submit that this is nowhere near enough.
My conviction is born out of a project on which I’m working. I am building a database of every saint and where each is buried. This catalogue is grouped by country, then by city and then by location.
So far, Italy has 82 pages. France, the next biggest country, has 34; and Germany, with the third greatest total, has 13. Korea — which has had the faith for less time than we have — has the fourth highest total of saints by country.
The United States has six and a half pages. Not bad, you think, right? Except that many of the entries on the U.S. document are shrines and places with reliquary chapels (e.g., St. Anthony’s in Pittsburgh). Or they are places that have had the benefit of getting a Roman martyr’s remains gifted to them or have a relic, such as of St. Anne or Blessed John Paul II.
There are a few such places on the aforementioned lists, granted. By and large, however, the above registers are comprised of homegrown saints.
Is it really possible we have no more saints in our nation than those already noted? Has not every diocese produced a saint? The questions are rhetorical. Of course each has. Of course we have more. It is possible — probable, even — that the Church Triumphant gains a new American every day. Unfortunately, we don’t know of them.
And yet, especially at this time (indeed, at all times), we need to know them. Saints exist not so much for help in finding our keys or, more seriously, to gain God’s healing for a loved one. Rather, Holy Mother Church presents them to us because of the examples they give. That is, each one took the mundane, ordinary materials of life and molded and fired these into the gold of sanctity.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to imitate or pray for the intercession of St. Anthony, who lived in Padua, Italy, in the 13th century. It’s another to do so with someone who lived in your back yard, who visited the places you know, who touched the things you can still touch.
And certainly, with the experience of nearly 500 years of Catholicism on these shores (the Gospel first came to what is now the United States in 1542), we have more than enough examples of holiness to increase the known number of American saints.
Therefore, I propose each diocese identify and put forward a sainthood cause. It could work like this: Each parish within the diocese would be encouraged to investigate whether someone who lived and died within it ever modeled the sort of heroic virtue that constitutes holiness. (For any number of reasons, I would suggest picking someone who lived within relatively recent memory and who was a layman or laywoman.)
Someone such as Sharon Schumer, for instance, a much-beloved catechist and director of religious education at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Necedah, Wis. Among those who knew her — and, sadly, I never did — her reputation for sanctity knows no limits. Her name is still mentioned with hushed, reverential tones. Her funeral Mass was packed to overflowing, no small feat in a town with only 1,800 people. While I guess it shouldn’t, it amazes me that someone who died back in 2000 is still so remembered for how she exemplified the Gospel.
Although he was neither recent nor a layman, another good bet would be Servant of God Father Magin Catalá (1761-1830), a Franciscan and the closest thing to a Padre Pio this country has ever had. Sadly, his beatification cause seems to have gone down in the same flames that devoured San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake. Why not resurrect it?
In any event, each parish would then forward its choice to the diocese for review, with the diocese determining which beatification cause it would put forward. At a minimum, it would make a great exercise to continue the spirit of the Year of Faith, recently ended, so that all may persist in their contemplation of what, precisely, constitutes holiness — what makes a saint.
Granted, many practical impediments exist to beginning such an undertaking. Candidly, the biggest of these is the cost.
Causes of saints are hugely expensive. There are witnesses to depose, evidence to collect, out-of-pocket expenses to reimburse, occasional stipends, if not salaries, to disburse, not to mention printing of prayer cards and brochures and other expenditures. All of this can cost between $250,000 to $1 million, spread out over many years.
Indeed, part of the expense comes from the fact that it often takes decades, even centuries, to pursue someone’s canonization. (For this reason, please don’t throw away those fundraising solicitations you get in the mail from, say, the Bishop Frederick Baraga cause.)
Nonetheless, if it is God’s will that someone be canonized, what is a small thing such as money?
What I do know is this: The gorgeous stained-glass windows and marble decorations in hundreds of 18th- and 19th-century churches throughout the land continue to edify and convert. By and large, these were paid for by struggling farmers and blue-collar laborers and their families who considered such outlays a worthy expenditure. These men and women believed this because they knew these lovely spaces would help strengthen and embolden their faith and thus help them get to heaven.
Saints are stained-glass windows and marble decorations in the flesh. Together, they help create an unspeakably gorgeous icon of Christ, one that shines from out of this world and into our lives and aids us in our own pursuit of holiness.
Therefore, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, vicars general, chancellors, pastors and Joe and Jane Person-in-the-Pew, please, let’s start now. I assure you: It will make for one heavenly journey, one everyone will be thrilled to take.
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.