Thinking about Saints

Today we celebrate the memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman. Unusually, his feastday is kept not on the date of his death but on the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism. That tells us something important about the way in which the Church views his life and work. The gradual development in Newman’s theological understanding is held up to us as a model to emulate but also, I think, as an encouragement. If we seek truth ardently, we shall be rewarded by an ever greater understanding.

On Sunday the pope declared two very different saints Doctors of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine nun, and John of Avila, the diocesan priest. In declaring them doctors, the pope was saying, in effect, here are two people on whose holiness of life and soundness of teaching you may rely. Very few saints are accorded that status in the Catholic Church, indeed only 35 to date.

I think all three saints share what we would today call a concern for evangelisation, for right teaching and fidelity to the mind of the Church. Hildegard was something of a polymath and pushed the boundaries of what was expected of a Benedictine nun. In her letters and her teaching she instructed many of the clergy. John of Avila, by contrast, is remembered chiefly for the personal holiness and zeal which informed his preaching and a book of advice addressed to a nun, Audi Filia. Hildegard’s missionary zeal spread out from the cloister; John’s flowed back in. And Newman? Newman is an interesting case of someone who wrote and spoke voluminously and probably did his greatest thinking about the Catholic Church and her mission as an Anglican. All three remind us that the saints of the Church do not conform to a single pattern; there is hope even for us, if we are prepared to make the sacrifice. The holiness of each one was rooted in the Cross of Christ and in the renunciation of self that discipleship demands. That isn’t a very fashionable doctrine, but it is a true one. Some things never change.

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10 thoughts on “Thinking about Saints”

  1. As Secretary of the Cleveland Newman Circle, Blessed John Henry Newman is one of my very favourite people. You seemed to imply in your comment, sister, that he had already been elevated to Sainthood. Although this is something which we hope and pray will one day happen, so far Pope Benedict has only beatified him.

    However, I agree wholeheartedly with all your other sentiments. Like JHN, Hildegard of Bingen and John of Avila are both truly inspiring as well. The Church really is, and has been, enriched by some of her members.

  2. Are you talking about canonisation, Lorraine? If so, please read the opening sentence of my post again. I state clearly that JHN is ‘beatus’.

    Hildegard has never been formally canonized, although the extension of her cultus to the universal Church on 10 May 2012 recognizes her claim to holiness. It is therefore equally correct to call her St Hildegard.

    I am using ‘saint’ in the third paragraph in the common sense of someone of eminent and demonstrable holiness. Canonization (like beatification or approval of cultus) recognizes but does not confer that. Given the context, I’m surprised you found my usage misleading; but if you have, others will also. Deep sigh!

    • Thank you for explaining, sister.

      Given that you used ‘saint’ rather than ‘Saint’ I should have realised, but wasn’t certain what you were inferring/forgetting/both. I should know by now that it was me who was confused. It doesn’t take much!

      Happy Memorial day.

  3. Some time ago we were asked what we got from reading this blog. Discussion came high on our list, together with cause for reflection and prayer. Today’s post reminds me of how much I value the sharing of the Benedictine love of learning and scholarship.
    John of Avila is a blank canvas for me and Sunday’s declaration that made him a Doctor on the Church was not sufficient to get me to fill in the blank.
    Today’s post has once again sent me to google, to investigate and what I came away with, apart from a desire to know more, is a snippet from an article by Sr Pamela Gormley, that really moves me.
    Gormley writes that John, like others before him says that the same holiness is required of the priest in both touching the altar bread and the congregation; ‘touching the Mystical Body of Christ and the Eucharistic Body’.
    What holds for the priest must surely hold for all communicants and is a profound idea and aspiration.
    Thank you for sharing the love of learning.

  4. I (an anglican) had been aware of ‘beatification’ and ‘canonisation’ and gathered these were stages in a process (?) Recognition of ‘cultus’ is new to me. The publicity over making Hildegard a doctor of the church was confusing me about her existing status. I would really welcome further clarification, Dame Catherine. Pretty please?

  5. The canonisation process of the Catholic Church since 1983 briefly explained:

    1. As a result of investigation by, e.g. the diocesan bishop, a candidate’s case is opened at Rome. The candidate is known as Servant of God and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints begins to gather evidence..

    2. At some point in the examination of the cause, a declaration Non Cultus is made, meaning that no superstitious/heretical/improper cult has grown up around the deceased.

    3. After further investigation, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints may recommend that the candidate’s ‘heroic virtue’ should be recognized. From then on, the deceased is known as ‘Venerable’. Prayer cards may be printed asking for a miracle at his/her intercession, but no churches may be dedicated in his/her honour, nor may any feastday be kept.

    4. Beatification is the next step and is a statement by the Church that it is ‘worthy of belief’ that the subject has attained the glory of heaven and a minor feastday, a memorial, may be kept. (There are several refinements to do with martyrdom, etc, but the basic notion is that it is now safe to call the person Blessed.)

    5. For canonisation, 3 miracles must have been performed after death and is a statement by the Church that the subject certainly is in heaven. Henceforth, he/she is called Saint.

    6. In the case of Hildegard and other saints who have never been formally canonised, there is a much simpler process called confirmation of cultus. Where there is evidence that a person has been regarded as a saint ‘since time immemorial’, in practice since before 1500, the pope simply declares that the cult is approved, the title of saint is given and a feastday assigned.

    7. Doctor of the Church is a special title given to some very few whose lives have been marked not only by outstanding personal holiness but also wise teaching deemed to be of great value to the whole Church.

    I hope that helps, Bridget; and if anyone wants to home in on some detail, please remember I am only giving a brief overview in simple language, not an exhaustive account.

  6. Very clear and helpful, thank you. I think I had heard at some point that Hildegard was not a ‘proper’ saint, but that was mistaken, then. I hope I have not demanded too much time and held you up from serious work too long! God bless the rest of the day.

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