The great Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J. once wrote an essay where he neatly summarized the reason for the Church’s practice of venerating the saints. He explained that there are basically three important and theologically sound reasons why this ancient tradition exists. Considering that so many non-Catholics seem to bark up the saint-tree and challenge a practice that can even find its roots in the Hebrew texts, it is a good idea to go over them.
First, the saints serve as “eschatological signs” that give witness to the fulfillment of God’s promises of eternal life. In other words, the saints are proof that there is life after death. They are evidence that not only Jesus was raised from the dead, but that we too shall be raised and take our place in his heavenly kingdom. In the gospel of St. John we read the words of Jesus when he comforts his apostles by telling them that, “my Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (14:2-3). The saints have already moved in.
Second, the saints serve as intercessors for the people of God. Like Abraham, who sheepishly insisted on interceding for the doomed people of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-33), or the Blessed Mother who confidently interceded on behalf of the young Jewish couple at their wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-12), the saints intercede for those who call upon them for help.
Third, the saints serve as examples of the potentiality of the gospel. Just as daredevils have taken the challenge of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel because others have done it before them and survived, Christians can strive to live out the gospel because others have successfully done it before them. The saints are proof that the expectations of Jesus Christ, through trial and error, through perseverance and faith, through blood, sweat, and tears (literally) can be met.
Lonergan’s theological triad is clear and concise. The great litany of canonized saints, whose feast days we celebrate throughout the liturgical year, and who have been charged with patronages as random as ingrown toenails (St. Martin de Porres) and fishmongers (St. Magnus of Avignon), have met the standards. They have officially made their way into the Church’s calendarium sanctis.
Now, what about those men and women who also seem to hold up satisfactorily to the Church’s standards and have not yet been Okayed for public veneration (at least not yet)? I am sure most of us have been touched by saintly men and women who have reflected the image of Christ and have brought us significantly closer to living the truth of the gospels. Men and women who we are convinced have been given access to one of those heavenly rooms, even though the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints hasn’t realized that they are checked in.
Here are three of my personal favorites:
- Bishop Enrique San Pedro, S.J. (1926-1994): He was my tenth grade theology teacher. How a man who spoke seven different languages, was a Scriptural scholar, and had been a missionary in the Philippines, Fiji Islands, and Vietnam, got stuck with the annoying task of teaching Christian morality to 16-year-old boys is beyond me. He actually wasn’t very good at it. But others in the Church obviously knew something about San Pedro that ignorant sophomores did not: he was a very holy man. In fact, so holy that St. Pope John Paul II ordained him a bishop and sent him to Galveston-Houston where he would minister to the large population of Hispanic and Vietnamese Catholics. After a battle with cancer he passed away. Years later, a young Belen student was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. We prayed to the holy bishop for a sign from heaven and we got it. The tumor disappeared and doctors had no medical explanation. Needless to say, my tenth-grade theology teacher is currently on the road to canonization and hopefully, soon, heaven will have two San Pedros.
- Jorge Sardiña, S.J. (1927-2008): On Sunday, September 3, 2000, I heard my first confession. I was in the sacristy at St. Timothy Catholic Church getting ready to preside over my first mass when Fr. Sardiña pulled me to the side and asked me to hear his confession. Was he crazy? I was a nervous wreck because I was minutes away from processing into a crowd of over a thousand people who had packed the pews of my childhood parish to be a part of the celebration. I asked him to reconsider, but he lovingly said no. I can tell you that I don’t remember anything he said. Not because of that special grace of forgiving and forgetting the Lord gives to His ministers of reconciliation in order to serve well the penitent, but because Fr. Sardiña’s sins were so inoffensive that I was somewhat embarrassed to be hearing them. Fr. Sardiña was such a holy and good man, that the slightest of things was for him truly an offense. Like a whitewashed wall that picks up the slightest speck of dust, that man’s heart and soul was as pure as the driven snow.
- Leonor Brown de García-Tuñón (1924-2014): Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my grandmother. Married to my grandfather for 67 years, she gave great witness to the truth of Scripture that, “the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, Mark 10:8). She raised nine children, survived two exiles, drove to schools, doctors’ appointments, soccer games and church for 27 grandchildren, and prayed the rosary with 30 great-grandchildren. She taught me how to pray. When she drove by a church she would make the sign of the cross and insist that I do the same, because Jesus was there. She was devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux and would often ask her for a vocation from the García-Tuñón family. So the Little Flower gave her a Jesuit. I can’t tell you the number of times since her death I have asked my grandmother for her help and have received it. In addition to martyrs, virgins, religious and confessors, I’m suggesting Pope Francis recognize a new category of saint: grandmothers.
Bishop San Pedro, Fr. Sardiña, or my grandmother have not been canonized, but their presence in heaven, their witness to the gospel values while here on earth, and their powerful intercession lead me only to believe that, at least personally, I can include them piously in the great company of the saints. As we celebrate throughout this first day of November the greatness of those holy men and women who lived and loved with the kind of fervor only surpassed by that of Jesus Christ, let us thank God for the gift of all the saints, those we read about and those we have known personally.