Lay Holiness: How Does It Look? – Part I

This new blog series will explore holiness in laymen and laywomen



Grace and holiness abound in the Body of Christ. Yet it seems that we – laity, bishops, priests, religious sisters and brothers – either do not know what holiness in laity looks like or do not know how to describe it to each other. Only two laypeople, who were holy in a way to which we laity could aspire, have been canonized in the last 40 years. Pope Francis has recognized cases of martyrdom, miracles, and heroic virtue on 28 occasions between January 2017 and May 2020. Of the 195 non-martyrs in this group, only 30 were laypeople. As best as I can determine, only four of the 30 laypeople were married (and three of the four married had children).

Let’s all of us, laity, bishops, priests, and religious, pray for the grace to recognize holiness among laypeople. Let’s start talking to one another about what we see.

Some time ago, likely in connection with the 50th anniversary of the canonization of St. Maria Goretti, I read a short report about her in a Catholic periodical. The report included the observation that, during the decades between her 1902 murder and her 1947 beatification, Vatican officials grappled with the question “What would holiness in a child – not a martyr — look like?” As I write these words, I call to mind the day’s Gospel reading: “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter” (Mark 10:15). Surely it was incumbent upon Vatican officials in the first half of the twentieth century, and it is incumbent upon all of us today, to meditate on what it means to accept the Kingdom like a child lest we be barred from entering it.

The most salient aspects of Maria’s story are, briefly, that Alessandro Serenelli (1882-1970), the 20-year-old son of the family with whom the Gorettis were living, demanded sex from her. She was not yet 12 years of age. She resisted, and he stabbed her 14 times. From her hospital bed, Maria told a priest that she forgave her attacker. After serving his sentence for killing her, Alessandro visited Maria’s mother on Christmas Day 1934. On his knees, he begged for her forgiveness and she replied that she could not withhold it since Maria had herself forgiven him. I recommend that you read more about Alessandro in Pietro DiDonato’s The Penitent (1962). Another “martyr of virginity” was beatified in September 2018: Anna Kolesarova, killed in 1944 at age 16.

A photo of St. Maria Goretti believed to have been taken on February 13, 1902, about five months before her death, can be found on NOR’s social-media pages. I like photographs of the saints because it is only recently in Church history that we have photographs, video, and audio of our holy ones. I also favor photos that show our holy ones with family, friends, coworkers, and everyday things.

A generation after St. Maria’s 1947 beatification, Vatican officials engaged in a reimagining and enlarging of the understanding of “Doctor of the Church.” (“Doctor” in Latin means “teacher.”) Over the course of centuries, more than 30 canonized saints had also been named as Doctors of the Church. On September 27, 1970, Pope St. Paul VI named a woman for the first time. She was St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582; canonized 1622). A few days later, on October 3, he named St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380; canonized 1461). Remarkably, St. Catherine was a laywoman (a Third Order Dominican) and, according to Pope Benedict XVI, had difficulty learning to read and write as an adult (weekly audience, November 24, 2010). The following linked article describes the hoops, the obstacles, and the mindsets that had to be jumped, hurdled, and changed in order for these two women to be named: “Catherine of Siena, Justly Doctor of the Church?” by Suzanne Noffke, O.P., Theology Today, vol. 60 (April 2003), pp. 49-62, 

Turning to lay women and men generally, I suggest that Vatican officials, and our bishops, priests, and laypeople themselves, have yet to consider what holiness in laymen and laywomen looks like. I plan to address the topic in this series of essays. First, I’ll write about the grace for which we should pray to recognize holiness in others. Then I’ll write about why the Church canonizes people. Third, I’ll make three specific proposals for adoption, one by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and two for our diocesan bishops. Then I’ll lay out some ideas for imagining how we think of holiness in laypeople, first by trying to describe the general expectations for a lay person to be a candidate for canonized sainthood, followed by a grappling with holiness that may be found in laypeople engaged in certain activities or occupations.

Stay tuned!


James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C., attorney. His master’s thesis was Aquinas on Marriage. 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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