John Paul II Saw Lay Holiness – Part XIV

Hidden saints may not fit our notions of how saints should look



One prominent member of the hierarchy who readily recognized holiness in the laypeople whom he knew personally was Pope St. John Paul II. Part X of this blog series mentioned one layman whose holiness he recognized: Jan Tyranowski. John Paul II declared him a Servant of God on April 28, 1997. Another was Hanna Chrzanowska, also cited in an earlier blog, who, from 1957 through her death in 1973, was a member of a lay group Karol Wojtyla, as priest, bishop, and then cardinal, shepherded. A third was Jerzy Ciesielski (1929-1970), married with children, two of whom died in the same boating accident as he did. His canonization process began in 1985 (during John Paul II’s papacy) and Pope John Paul named him a Servant of God in 1992. Pope Francis recognized Ciesielski’s heroic virtue in 2013.

When Karol Wojtyla was a young man, he learned of the holiness of layman Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925). Wojtyla, now as John Paul II, beatified him in 1990. In July 2019, Frassati’s elderly niece said:

Karol Wojtyla knew about his life when he was a young man, as a biography of Pier Giorgio was published in Poland in 1929, and he was edified by his testimony. When he came to Pollone [Italy] in 1989 to pray at Pier Giorgio’s tomb he said, “I, too, in my youth, felt the beneficial influence of his example, and, as a student, I was impressed by the force of his Christian testimony.” (Solène Tadié, “Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Is First Modern Lay Saint, According to Niece,” National Catholic Register, July 4, 2019.)

Consider how we think of holiness in laypeople. When a football coach looks at a prospective player, he or she looks at his height, his weight, his strength, his speed. He looks at his “build.” Regardless of what position the man may have played in the past, the coach now sees that the man has the “right build” for tight end, or wide receiver, or linebacker, or offensive lineman, and so on. I believe that our bishops and priests, our religious women and men, and our lay people, have notions about the “right build” for a saint. And their notions of the “right build” for sanctity — sufficient to be a candidate for canonization — do not include non-martyred laywomen and laymen.

Let’s explore what a “right build” for a holy laywoman or layman might be. I certainly do not wish to be confined to “right builds.” I acknowledge that the Holy Spirit can fashion a saint out of clay (Isaiah 64:8), that He can make even stones cry out (Luke 19:40), that He can pour Himself out on people whom we would not suspect, as described in the Acts of the Apostles:

While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word. The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God (Acts 10:44-46; boldface added).

This reminds me of a conversation in which a priest-friend told me that the priests who knew St. Brother André Bessette, C.S.C. (1845-1937, canonized 2010), the doorkeeper at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, paid absolutely no attention to him. And it reminds me of Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2016:

I can give a good example from the religious order I belong to of the efficacy of testimony. The major contribution, even if it is hidden, that the Capuchin Order has made to evangelization in the five centuries of its history has not been, I believe, that of its professional preachers but that of the host of “lay brothers”: simple and uneducated doorkeepers of monasteries or mendicants. Entire populations have rediscovered and kept their faith because of contact with them. One of them, Blessed Nicola of Gesturi, spoke so little that the people called him “Brother Silence,” and yet in Sardinia, 58 years after his death, the Capuchin Order is identified with Brother Nicola of Gesturi, or with Brother Ignatius of Laconi, another holy mendicant friar of the past. The words Francis of Assisi addressed one day to the preachers among his brothers have come to pass: “Why do you boast of men converted when my simple brethren have converted them by their prayers?”

We will continue this exploration in the next post.


***Editor’s Note: For Part XV in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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