Unaccounted Lay Saints – Part VI

A small fraction of non-martyred saints canonized in the past 40 years were laypersons



The Statistical Yearbook of the Church states that there are 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide. These numbers are baptized, not practicing, Catholics. France, for example, reports 44 million Catholics among its 59 million residents, but the French church claims about four million practicing Catholics. In Poland, weekly attendance, according to local church officials’ estimates, is around 40%. In the Province of Quebec, Canada, weekly attendance has dropped from 80%-plus before 1960 to around 8% now.

As for the U.S., take Pittsburgh as an example: “The number of active Catholics within the Pittsburgh diocese has declined rapidly in recent decades, from 914,000 in 1980 to 632,000 in 2015, diocesan figures show” (Natasha Lindstrom, “We Need to Make Our Worship Better, Pittsburgh Bishop Zubik Says,” The [Pittsburgh] Tribune-Review, Aug. 17, 2016.) The same report says, “Since 2000, weekly Mass attendance has dropped by 40 percent,” “K-8 Catholic school enrollment fell by 50 percent; and the number of active priests plummeted from 338 to 225.” At least one observer claims that U.S. bishops are lax on illegal immigration because it replenishes the pews and coffers (John Zmirak, “Why Do U.S. Catholic Bishops Favor Immigration and Oppose Trump,” American Spectator, Oct. 3, 2016.)

Of course, these figures are before the coronavirus pandemic.

Of 1.3 billion Catholics reported in the Statistical Yearbook of the Church (June 2017, for the year ending December 2015), about one million are priests or religious (281,000 diocesan priests, 134,000 religious Order priests, 54,000 brothers, and 670,000 female religious; it is not stated whether these include retirees). Thus, one-tenth of one percent of Catholics have received Holy Orders or have taken the evangelical vows — of poverty, chastity, and obedience — and 99.9% of Catholics are lay. One would think that this percentage, or a number very close to it, has held true for a very long period of time.

Contrast these numbers with the number of laypersons who have been beatified or canonized. One tabulation was given by journalist Kenneth Woodward in his 1990 book Making Saints. Woodward claims that of the 303 canonized saints named between the years 1000 and 1987, only 56 were laymen and 20 were laywomen. “Moreover, of the 63 lay saints whose state of life is known for certain,” he wrote, “more than half never married. And most of these lay saints were martyred, either individually or as members of a group.”

Let’s update Woodward’s tabulation by looking at the period from the beginning of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate in 1978, through Pope Benedict’s pontificate, and continuing through October 2018 in Pope Francis’s pontificate. Admittedly, this is a short period of time in Church history, a snapshot. And, while it is a period when there may have been a focus on laypersons as candidates for canonized sainthood (see Christifideles Laici, “On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” Dec. 30, 1988, para. 17), the time from identifying a person as a Servant of God to canonization can be a long, long pipeline, extending hundreds of years.

During this 40 years from 1978 to October 2018, there have been 1,419 individuals canonized. Of these, 1,249 are martyrs, many of whom are laypeople. (These numbers are derived from http://www.gcatholic.org/saints/index.htm.) This 1,249 is a miniscule number of martyrs. At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 2016, Cardinal Robert Sarah declared that there were already in the 21st century one million martyrs. Robert Royal wrote a book describing the tens of millions of martyrs in the 20th century: The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (2006).

But martyrs are a very special class. I want to focus on non-martyrs, to which I turn your attention in the next blog.


***Editor’s Note: For Part VII 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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