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Open Tribune

Does the holiness next door need miracles?

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06 November 2021

There are books that arrive at the right time and leave a mark. One such book for me was Gente in Aspromonte [People in Aspromonte], by Corrado Alvaro, which was able to provide a glimpse of sanctity where you would not expect it and, at the same time, a glimpse of the intrusion of the everyday into representations of the sacred. On one of its pages, there are statues of saints with the faces of “villagers who have stopped suffering”. Statues in the semi-abandoned churches in the countryside and in the kiosks on the walls of cities, faces depicted in important paintings and in the devotional repertoires, all of them, from that moment onwards, taught me a pietas that innervated the instances of liturgical reform, the wanderings in the suburbs, and the theological reflections.

Equivalence: what is it?

Looking to the third millennium, beatifications and canonisations are also a bit like that. Placed there, on the altars amongst the varied population of foundresses and founders, of some popes, of many martyrs; and also the recovery of the venerated, and in a certain sense “suspended” saints - such as the medieval Margaret of Città di Castello and Angela of Foligno. For the latter there is talk (just look at the Wikipedia page dedicated to them) of “equivalent canonizations”. The term in this case - we may have encountered it before only in certain official documents, aimed at establishing equivalences of degrees - means that an exception has been made, declaring saints “in the same way” those people whose cause had been suspended, even many centuries ago. Equivalence here is therefore a derogation from the centralised mechanisms of the saints’ factory, a kind of amnesty that recognises the reputation for holiness attested to by Christian people, which comes before regulations. This is important, because it suggests that what we are talking about is first and foremost the miracle of a life shared like bread, multiplied in trust, illuminated by grace.

In Gaudete et exsultate one seems to read just that, even when Francis refers to a Motu proprio of 2017 (Maiorem hac diletionem) that widens the mesh of martyrdom. At that point, I really would have expected that even the codicil calling for certified miracles after the death of the “saint” would undergo a significant metamorphosis, to the point at which it could finally disappear; or at the very least would pass into the background, among the miscellaneous.

Communion of Saints cannot stand borders

For the moment, however, the request for evidence of a miracle has not disappeared, which causes significant fatigue to the committees of those who present someone for the canonisation process. The air we breathe, however - from chapter V of Lumen Gentium to John Paul II’s Novo Millennio Ineunte and Francis’ Gaudete - is different and does not isolate saints and altar saints from those “next door” (GE 6). This aspect cannot be omitted, for it does not lower the demands of the Christian life, but teaches us to recognise them in a less conspicuous, less predictable and for that very reason more evangelical paths, in the end. How can we fail to recall some key passages of this apostolic exhortation, which does not limit itself to giving dignity to everyday gestures and small details of love (n. 145), but extends to blessing the lives of those who experience holiness - care, justice, blessing - perhaps calling it by different names. This dimension is expressed through the words of Edith Stein:“In the darkest night, the greatest prophets and saints rise up. Still, the life-giving stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Surely, the decisive events of history of the world have been essentially influenced by souls about whom the history books remain silent. And those souls that we must thank for the decisive events in our personal lives is something that we will know only on that day when all that which is hidden will be brought to light” (ibid., no. 8). Important gestures, up to the gift of life, and small attentions taken from the Gospel accounts, but also suitable for our homes:

The small detail that wine was running out at a party. The small detail that a sheep was missing. The small detail of the widow offering her two coins. The small detail of having spare oil for the lamps if the bridegroom was late. The small detail of asking the disciples to see how many loaves they had. The small detail of having a small fire ready and fish on the grill while he waited for the disciples at dawn (ibid 144).

The roots and the future

Returning to the list of canonisations in recent years, while it cannot be denied that there are many women, it must also be admitted that most of them are founders of religious congregations. It is worth pausing for a moment on this aspect, but not (only) to lament the almost total absence of lay people, with the exception of martyrs and parents of consecrated persons, as much as to say at least something about collective undertakings and their memory. The lives of these women have been submitted to the Congregation for the Saints because they bring with them the lives of so many others, with their spiritual memory, their present dedication, their desire for the future. This is very, very important and should never be forgotten, while important but insufficient statistical calculations are made.

A final observation: let us not deny fervour the accompaniment of thought. Devoted memory is not always expressed in appropriate ways. For example, the images of those who spiritually offer their lives to God for some cause are generous, but improvident, because they project on God horrible scenes from swashbuckling films, in which blood must necessarily flow. A very different image from the merciful Father of the Gospels.  By keeping the good but stripping it of the inadequate we practice a high measure of spirituality too.

by Cristina Simonelli
Theologian, professor of Christian Antiquities at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy (Milan) and Verona.