Laymen Who Gave Their Lives – Part XVIII

Pope Francis established norms for 'offer of life' as a new cause for beatification and canonization



In Part XVII, I brought up the issue of prominence and clarified that by identifying prominent people, I do not mean to imply that prominence is a criterion for canonization. Prominence is why a larger public knows about them. This allows us to have a conversation about whether they, and the many who were not prominent, have saintly attributes. Let me offer this thought experiment: If Pope St. John Paul II had never been consecrated a bishop, much less been named a cardinal and elected pope, would he (1) have grown in holiness as a priest? (2) would that holiness have been recognized by the people and hierarchy of Poland? I think the answer to the first question is a resounding yes. I think the answer to the second question is problematic, and that is why I am writing this series: to encourage us to see the holiness in other people and to share our “findings” with our bishops.

Similarly, and in order to turn our attention to laypersons, I think it is worthwhile to ask, “Would Saint so-and-so have been canonized if he/she were a layperson?” “Would Saint so-and-so have been canonized if he/she had not founded a religious order?” “Would Saint so-and-so have been canonized if he/she had founded a religious order that did not remain viable?”

Those Who Have Chosen Death for the Sake of Another

Our Lord declared, “Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). These words accompanied the obituaries of many American soldiers killed in World War I (Julie Zauzmer, “Newspapers Were Once Full of Bible Quotes—and a Local Professor’s Tool Lets Us Learn From Them,” Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2016).

On July 11, 2017, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Letter Maiorem hac dilectionem (the words from John 15:13; the English title is On Offer of Life). The portion relevant for our purposes reads as follows:

Worthy of special consideration and honor are those Christians who, following more than closely the footsteps and teachings of the Lord Jesus, have voluntarily and freely offered their life for others and persevered with this determination unto death.

Certainly the heroic offering of life, inspired and sustained by charity, expresses a true, complete and exemplary imitation of Christ, and thus is deserving of that admiration that the community of faithful customarily reserves to those who have voluntarily accepted the martyrdom of blood or have exercised Christian virtues to a heroic degree.

…I establish that the following norms be observed:

Art. 1. The offer of life is a new cause for the beatification and canonization procedure, distinct from the causes based on martyrdom and on the heroism of virtues.

Art. 2. The offer of life, in order that it be valid and effective for the beatification of a Servant of God, must respond to the following criteria:

a) a free and voluntary offer of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem [for the sake of charity] of a certain and untimely death;

b) a nexus between the offer of life and premature death;

c) the exercise, at least as ordinarily possible, of Christian virtues before the offer of life and, then, unto death;

d) the existence of a reputation of holiness and of signs, at least after death;

e) the necessity of a miracle for beatification, occurring after the death of the Servant of God and through his or her intercession.

You may notice that a lifetime of heroic virtue is not necessary in light of the heroic deed of a death for charity. Rather, “ordinary” virtue during life is sufficient. (Martyrs, too, need not have exhibited a lifetime of heroic virtue.)

One example of this great love described in Offer of Life is that of a religious-order priest, St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941; canonized 1982), who volunteered to be killed by the Nazis in place of a father of children.

Who are laypeople who are examples of such great acts of charity? It seems to me that one obvious group of individuals who have died for the sake of others are those military personnel who have voluntarily fallen on a hand grenade in order to save their comrades in arms. In the U.S., such persons often (always?) receive a Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for valor in military service. How many of these have been Catholics who also have met the other criteria for beatification elucidated above?

George Weigel has described one such Catholic, Petty Officer Second Class (SEAL) Michael Anthony Monsoor, who died in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, on September 29, 2006 (George Weigel, “Navy SEAL: Martyr of Charity?” Ethics & Public Policy Center, undated). Another Catholic is Navy SEAL Sgt. John A. Chapman (1965-2000).

(Of course, similar heroes may be non-Catholic. This is not to suggest that non-Catholics could be canonized, but, again, only to stimulate our thinking.)

The next installment in this series will consider those who have risked death for another.


***Editor’s Note: For Part XIX 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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