The Making of a Saint
Pope Benedict XVI Canonizes Two American Saints Oct. 21
By Lilla Ross
The church is about to get a little saintlier. On Sunday, Oct. 21, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize seven new saints, including two American women: Kateri Tekakwitha and Mother Marianne Cope.
Although they lived in other centuries, the struggles they faced in their lives should resonate in the 21st Century, said Catholic theologian Lawrence Cunningham, a retired professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Cunningham, who has written several books about saints, said the concept of “saint” is widely misunderstood.
In the popular imagination, the word usually conjures a one-dimensional image of impossible sanctity. Artistic representations of pious gazes and halos don’t help.
And then there’s the other end of the spectrum, when “saint” is used to describe a beloved parent or grandparent.
But neither concept really captures the meaning of “saint,” he said.
At his recent installation as cardinal, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan said, “It’s nice to be a cardinal, but I’d rather be a saint.”
Some people might have thought Cardinal Dolan was overreaching. Not at all, Cunningham said. All Catholics are called to be saints.
Saints have achieved a state of sanctity, which means they are with God.
“That’s the problem with religious language in general,” he said. “We need to root the concept of saint in the broader category of the communion of the saints.”
For Catholics “the church” isn’t just the parish or the diocese or the Vatican, Cunningham said. “It is the Communion of Saints – all the people who have gone before.”
The church singles out notable examples for canonization – a lengthy process during which the person is “vetted,” and their sanctity confirmed through miracles.
That process occurs in stages beginning with the designation of “Servant of God” and then “Venerable,” “Blessed” and finally “Saint.”
The Georgia Martyrs, who lived and died on St. Catherine and Cumberland islands, have been proposed for canonization and are considered Servants of God.
Cuban patriot Father Felix Varela, who grew up and later died in St. Augustine, has recently been made Venerable.
And Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope have for many years been designated as Blessed.
A common misconception is that Catholics worship saints.
“We don’t adore saints, we venerate them,” Cunningham said. “We ask for their intercession. The saints join our prayers and aspirations. And they show us different ways to follow Christ.”
But it’s not necessary to become a martyr, a missionary or a monastic to achieve sainthood, he said. “You become a saint by doing what you’re supposed to do as a good Christian,” he said.
The canonization Mass will be aired Sunday, Oct. 21, from 3:30-6:30 a.m. EDT on EWTN, and it will be rerun at 11 a.m. EDT. More information can be found by visiting the USCCB website.
Blessed Kateri Tekakwith, "Lily of the Mohawks"
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American to be canonized.
“For more than a century, she was a big part of the history of the Diocese of St. Augustine, once encompassing the entire state of Florida east of the Apalachicola River. She was a true representative of all Christians,” said Bishop Felipe J. Estévez.
Although she is depicted as a beautiful Indian maiden, when she was about 4, Kateri was partially blinded and disfigured by smallpox, which also killed her parents and brother.
If her name is any indication – “Tekakwitha” means “one who stumbles about” – her life as a disabled orphan was difficult.
When she was 11 she encountered the newly arrived Jesuit missionaries. Her uncle ordered her to stay away from the white men and their strange beliefs, but she began attending catechism classes.
Typically, the Jesuits only baptized people on their deathbeds. But Kateri’s devotion was considered so strong that she was baptized on Easter 1676 at the age of 20.
She was immediately bullied and ostracized by her tribe and eventually she was forced to leave her village and live at the Jesuit mission, where she helped take care of the poor and sick. At the age of 23, she received First Communion and took a vow of perpetual virginity.
A year later she died of pneumonia. She was beatified in 1980. Her feast day is July 14.
Blessed Marianne Cope, "Advocate for lepers"
Blessed Marianne Cope has a much more modern story, as a strong leader and hospital administrator.
She was born in Germany in 1838 and the following year her family immigrated to Utica, N.Y.
When she was in eighth grade, her father became an invalid and as the eldest, she had to work in a factory to help support the family. He died when she was 24 and she entered the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, based in Syracuse, N.Y.
Initially she taught in a school for German-speaking children. When the Franciscans opened two hospitals in central New York in 1870, she became the administrator of the one in Syracuse.
About a decade later she was elected superior general of her order.
In 1883, King Kalakaua of Hawaii sent a plea for help in caring for lepers. Few people wanted anything to do with them because they were considered to be highly contagious. More than 50 religious institutes had already declined his request, but Mother Marianne responded enthusiastically:
“I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen Ones, whose privilege it will be, to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders... I am not afraid of any disease; hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”
In Hawaii, Mother Marianne had numerous fights with the government over the care of lepers. She was put in charge of a leper hospital in Oahu.
She fought for the rights of the children of lepers and was able to open home for them, so they could be near their parents.
In 1888, she moved to the leper colony on the island of Moloka’i to tend to the world-famous Father Damian, who was dying of leprosy. Upon his death, she assumed leadership of his ministry to the lepers. She worked with them for another 30 years until her death in 1918 at the age of 80. She never contracted the disease.
She was beatified in 2005. Her feast day is Jan. 23.