CM Saints and Beati/A

From Vincentian Encyclopedia


CM Saints and Beati (A)

by Thomas Davitt CM

CIF, April 1998


Article 50 of our Constitutions reads as follows:

We should cherish devotion to St Vincent and to the canonized and beatified members of the Vincentian Family.

In article 104 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council "proposes the saints as examples to the faithful". In article 50 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council again speaks of the saints as examples, but also stresses our link with them through the Communion of Saints. In the following article, 51, it says that Vatican II accepts the tradition of the veneration of saints and endorses what had been said by previous Councils, especially Nicea II, Florence and Trent. The reference it gives to Nicea II is about statues and images of saints. The reference to Florence is to a section where there is a passing mention of the fact that there are persons who have died and now enjoy the sight of God. The reference to Trent is to quite a long section in which two points of importance to us are made: that we can pray to the saints and seek their help, and that bishops are to put the saints before us as models.

In the Missal the Second Preface for Holy Men and Women has this passage, addressed to God:

You renew the Church in every age
by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness,
living witnesses of your unchanging love.
They inspire us by their heroic lives,
and help us by their constant prayers,
to be the living sign of your saving power.


My final quotation is from what Paul VI said from his balcony at the Angelus after the canonization of Justin De Jacobis in October 1975. I rather like it, because I was there when he said it:

Just as natural things invite our admiration by revealing God's activity, his omnipotence, greatness and beauty, we can, and should, to an even greater extent, appreciate his image, restored to its perfection and reflecting his work and love, in the mirror of these heroic brothers of ours... We need human examples if we are to achieve a closer likeness to God. (Osservatore Romano 27-28 October 1975)

In all those references and quotations there are two points to which I wish to draw your attention. The first is that the saints, and also the beati though they are not specifically mentioned, can help us by their prayers, and that therefore we should ask them for their help. As far as I know, however, confreres do not seem, in fact, to pray much to our saints and beati, other than perhaps to St Vincent. I just mention this general matter of praying to them, and will not dwell on it.

The second point from the references and quotations to which I want to draw your attention, and on which I want to spend some time, is much more difficult. The saints are referred to as models and examples, and this causes problems for many people. How can someone from another century and another culture be a model or example for me?

In the past this was not an aspect of devotion to the saints which was stressed. What was stressed was that the saints were to be admired and venerated, and that they could help us by their prayers. The element of admiration and veneration was brought out in art, with stylised paintings and statues, with haloes around their heads. This approach tended to emphasise that the saints were different from us, a special category of person. Writers aided this approach by laying disproportionate emphasis on the extraordinary features of their lives, often to such an extent that we came away with the impression that there were no ordinary features to them at all.

Even the titles of books seemed to place these people outside our reach as models or examples: St Vincent de Paul, Founder of the Congregation of the Mission. John Gabriel Perboyre, Martyr in China. Justin De Jacobis, Apostle of Ethiopia. The Martyrs of the French Revolution. Unconsciously we absorb how they differ from ourselves: Founder, Martyr, China, Apostle, Ethiopia, French Revolution. Yet the Church insists that they can be models and examples; we have to examine how exactly that can be.

Let's go back to the documents of Vatican II. Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium tells us that every member of the Church is called to holiness in the individual circumstances of his or her life. In other words, the form of holiness to which I am called must be different from that to which Vincent de Paul was called simply because the circumstances of our two lives are different. So that is the first clue to seeing how saints can be examples and models. They are not models in the sense that we have to do precisely what they did. They are models in the sense that examining how they reacted to the particular circumstances of their own times helps us to learn how we can react to the particular circumstances of our lives.

Article 4 of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, says that the Church must scrutinise the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel. The first part of that has become a sort of catch-phrase; the second part is not always referred to. There is a very important point to bear in mind when reading the Vatican II documents. When there is mention of "the Church" what is said refers to the individual member of the Chruch as well as to the Church as a whole, unless the contrary is obvious from the context. So, when the Council says that the Church must scrutinise the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel, that means that each individual member of the Church must do so. This is a further step along the road of seeing how the saints can be models for us. They scrutinised the signs of their times, and interpreted them in the light of the gospel. Examining how they did both of these things helps us to scrutinise what our actual situation as an individual is, and how we can interpret it in the light of the gospel.

To take this further we need to look at the context in the constitution where this famous phrase occurs. Article 3 of Gaudium et Spes says that the Church has only one aim, namely to continue Christ's work of bearing witness to the truth, rescuing and serving. In order to do this it must scrutinise the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel. Once again, remember that what is said about the Church as a whole applies to the individual member of the Church. In other words, the individual member of the Church should have only one aim, to continue Christ's work of bearing witness to the truth, rescuing and serving.

Saints, then, can be more easily seen as models against these ideas. A saint was conscious of his or her role as someone who was to carry on Christ's work under one or two or three of the headings: bearing witness to the truth, rescuing, serving. He or she scrutinised his or her personal situation, interpreted it in the light of the gospel, and saw how to carry on Christ's work under one or more of those headings.

Vatican II provides another way of looking at this matter of saints as models, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. This Constitution begins by saying that because of its relationship with Christ the Church is a sign of two things; and remember again that what is said of the Church as a whole is also true of the individual member of the Church. The Church is a sign of two things: Union with God, and unity among people. Therefore the individual member of the Church is, or is supposed to be, a sign of union with God and of unity among people. These two ideas provide another realistic way of looking on saints as models. But the document takes matters a step further. The Church is not just a sign of union and unity; it is also an instrument for bringing about union with God and unity among people. And again, so is the individual member; and so, again, saints can be realistically taken as models under these headings.

We can now draw up a list of headings of ways in which a saint can be a model or example, based on the Vatican II documents; he or she was a person who:

a) scrutinised the signs of their own times, situations, circumstances;

b) interpreted these in the light of the gospel;

c) bore witness to the truth;

d) rescued, in some sense;

e) served others;

f) was a sign of union with God;

g) brought others into union with God;

h) was a sign of unity among people;

i) brought about unity among people.

In looking at saints or beati with a view to taking them as models or examples we also have to take into account the fact that they were people of their own nations. If their nationality or national characteristics coloured their way of doing any of the things in the list I have just given we must be aware of that and make allowance for it. Anything peculiarly French, for example, in Vincent does not have to be followed by us.

But another more important and more practical warning is to be alert to anything in the work, ministry or missionary activity of a saint or beatus which was the result of his being a man of his own historical period. Vincent was a man of the 17th century, the French Revolution martyrs were of the 18th, Francis Clet was of the latter part of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th, and the others were of the 19th. John Francis Gnidovec, the confrere whose cause is the most likely to make progress, was of the 20th, as were the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.

We can make a list, by no means complete, of the things which tied a saint or beatus to his period and which we need to take into account when viewing his work or ministry as models or examples for us. In many cases his way of acting would be wrong for us, because things in our time are so different that we simply would be obliged to behave differently:

a) Medical and health matters;

b) Communication by letter and reply;

c) Overland travel;

d) Travel by sea;

e) Understanding of sacred scripture;

f) Dogmatic theology;

g) Moral theology;

h) Limited availability of books;

i) Authority in the Church, in the State and within the Congregation;

j) Financial and business affairs.

There is one final point I wish to make with regard to those who have been, or are likely to be, beatified or canonised as confessors. That category means that in their lives they put the Christian virtues into practice to a heroic degree. Real heroes in any walk of life are exceptions. Military awards for heroism, for example, are not easily earned, and in any army the number of persons receiving such awards is a mere fraction of the entire army. Saints who have been canonised as confessors are similarly only a small numerical fraction of all the Christians who have lived.

An obvious question arises here: does not this mean that they are only to be admired, not imitated? The answer is that they are not models or examples to lead us to canonization, but to holiness. Each individual is called to holiness, not necessarily to heroic holiness. If we remember something I said earlier on, it throws light on this apparent dilemma. We are to scrutinise the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel. One of the principal signs I have to scrutinise is myself, with my personality and temperament, my natural gifts and talents, my strengths and weaknesses, my education and formation, even my likes and dislikes, my preferences and repugnances. It may be a simple statement of fact that I am not cast in the heroic mould, that although I want and try to live the Christian life to the best of my ability in my given circumstances my achievements in this sphere will fall far short of heroism; that, of course, does not matter. If others can achieve heroism in their lives and I cannot, that is just the way each of us is. The important thing, though, is that I can still take a hero as my model, seeing how he used his gifts, talents, skills, personality, temperament and so on in his living of Christianity. I don't try to "do what he did" in the obvious meaning of that expression, but I do try "to do what he did" in the sense of using my abilities and opportunities as he used his.

All our beatified confreres were martyrs. In what realistic way can we look on them as models or examples? Each one of us, as an individual, probably regards it as almost certain that we will not be martyred. But in one sense our martyrs were actually better examples for us than the confessors, because they were not men who lived lives of heroic holiness. They were ordinary confreres who, when faced with the choice between denial of Christianity or death, had the courage to face death. What is so interesting about them is that it was their non-heroic lives as ordinary confreres that laid the foundation for the faith and courage to face death.

This means that when we read about them and try to see them as examples and models we can more or less ignore the way in which they died and concentrate on the way in which they lived. Here again many writers and preachers have tended to emphasise their deaths and not pay enough attention to their lives, to what they did in the years before their deaths.

Another mistake some writers have made is to suggest that because they were martyred they must have lived lives of heroic holiness beforehand, and they try to make the martyrdom throw its shadow backwards over their earlier life.

In the subsequent sessions I will deal with individuals in the light of what I have been saying this morning.