Role Models for the Faithful

January-February 1992By Aaron W. Godfrey

Aaron W. Godfrey teaches Classics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook

Making Saints.  By Kenneth Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 461 pages. $12.

The Book of Christian Martyrs.  By Bruno Chenu, Claude Proud’homme, France Quere, and Jean Claude Thomas. Crossroad. 215 pages. $18.95.

The Communion of Saints: Prayers of the Famous.  By Horton Davies. Eerdmans. 148 pages. $14.95.

The Penguin Dictionary of Saints.  By Donald Attwater. Penguin. 352 pages. $7.95.

The Pocket Dictionary of Saints.  By John J. Delaney. Doubleday (Image). 527 pages. $6.95.



When I was young, impressionable, and in Catholic school, the saints were held up as models of perfection; but I found the rigors of fasting and self-denial much too difficult. As I got older, I came to recognize that certain saints were peculiar — borderline hysterics, anti-social, masochistic. At any rate, the veneration of saints has varied with the times, and certain saints who were attractive to earlier generations no longer have resonance in the 20th century. But saints are saints not so much because they are “normal,” but because they love God above all else.

Kenneth Woodward, who has covered the religion beat at Newsweek for more than a quarter century, understands well Vatican processes of saint-making. He has done an extraordinary amount of research and is thorough and evenhanded, even though he has a “point of view.” Parts of Making Saints may surprise, disappoint, and even shock; but they describe the real world of the Church’s saint-making apparatus. Woodward takes us behind the scenes at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and shows how carefully the causes are prepared — and how they can be stymied (or promoted) by special interests.

The labyrinth of several recent controversial causes is described. For example, the cause of Archbishop Romero, long on a death-squad hit list because of his support of the poor of El Salvador and assassinated while celebrating Mass, has been delayed indefinitely, lest it offend the “Catholic,” ultra-conservative government of his country. The cause of Franz Jagerstatter, a devout Austrian Catholic beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to serve in the army, is politically sensitive because his beatification could be misinterpreted as official endorsement of pacifism.

John Henry Newman, once suspected of “modernist” views, is now a candidate for sainthood (without substantiating miracles), and, as Woodward asserts, is needed for this generation because “the canonization process still does not readily comprehend the worth of the intellectually gifted.”

Woodward notes the appearance of conflict between sexuality and spirituality in the slowness of the Church to canonize married saints. Many of those under consideration either practiced chastity after being widowed or were voluntarily celibate for extended periods of time.

Although Woodward is a committed Catholic, he harbors biases against the Church’s hierarchy. Nonetheless, he merits kudos for Making Saints (recently out in paperback), which is very good reading.

The Book of Christian Martyrs, a group effort from France, explores martyrdom and its impact on the Church. The initial essay by France Quere puts the phenomenon in perspective and shows how, as Tertullian wrote, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It is clear that a martyred hero has a greater honor than an aging hero whose accomplishments tend to tarnish with age.

As for those martyred in the face of political injustice, it is not always dear just how to distinguish between political statement and Christian witness. Indeed, one might wonder whether, say, Archbishop Romero and Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, charismatic opponents of repressive regimes, were martyred or assassinated. Whatever the case, their passion for the rights of the oppressed was generated and nourished by an interior life of faith. But it is likely that their killers believed that by ridding their countries of subversive elements they were acting patriotically.

The Book of Christian Martyrs explores the kind of faith and love that give a person the strength to relinquish life. In some cases the scholarship is a bit sloppy (like the misnumbering of popes), but it is not meant to be a scholarly work. Let the faithful read, and be witnessed to accordingly.

The Communion of Saints compiles (by subject) prayers written by famous Christians. The best of these prayers are often the shortest, for example: “Thy will be done, though in my own undoing” (Sir Thomas Browne). The Communion of Saints is a good nightstand prayer book and puts the reader in fine company.

Good and inexpensive reference books are always welcome. The two Dictionaries of Saints are highly recommended. The Attwater work is older and not as complete or easy to use as the Delaney book. In both we get biography, historical context, symbols of the saints, and how saints are to be invoked as patrons.

The faithful need role models to be and do good. The saints made a practice of striving for the good and, like us, were human. But they were transformed by the fire of God’s love. Their example can fire others to redirect their lives. To paraphrase Leon Bloy, “The one tragedy is that we are not all saints.”



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