The Vatican Loves a Good Story

It takes money, a medical miracle, and a compelling vita to make it as a saint today.

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Pope Benedict XVI

It’s been an unpleasant year for Pope Benedict XVI, so much so, one feels moved to ask: Are there any papal practices he takes refuge in that are more fun than, say, celibacy? We know of at least one: saint-making. In his going-on-five-year-old reign, the pontiff has canonized at least 29 souls, according to the Holy See’s Web site—10 in 2009 alone. The newly sainted didn’t include Mother Teresa, everyone’s top seed, but they did include one friar, Bernardo Tolomei, born in the 13th century, whose crowning achievement, according to the Vatican biography, was to leave his fellow “monks an example of a holy life, the practice of the virtues to a heroic level, an existence dedicated to the service of others, and to contemplation.”

Today, the Vatican is busier than ever minting new saints. John Paul II canonized more than all the popes of the five centuries before him combined—over 130 in his 25 years, says the Vatican site—and his successor, Benedict, is now besting his per annum rate. Shrewd in the calculus of worship, John Paul recognized that the canon could be a boon to the perpetuation of Catholicism in an era of increasing secularism, just as martyrs’ cults had been to its early spread among polytheists and Jews. The former playwright’s dramaturgical instincts told him people just like saints. They may not like their priests and bishops, nor indeed the pope, and they may not care to read Deuteronomy. But they enjoy their saints, even when they know—maybe because they know—that not all saints deserve to be saints.

Unlike, say, Jesus, saints offer relatable examples of righteousness. They’re often awkward, vain, dissolute, paranoid, self-loathing, lazy, annoying, racked with doubt. (No surprise, then, that their life stories, or vitae, were often the pre-Gutenberg equivalent of best-sellers.)Saints also offer a local connection to the heavens: Six continents will be represented in the canon when, this fall, Australia gets its first saint, Mary MacKillop, a nun with a posthumous blog and a travel agency devoted to her cause.

The key to canonization since at least the Counter-Reformation, to paraphrase Kenneth L. Woodward’s Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, is that through reflection and renunciation the person in question found divinity in interior life and became capable of extraordinary charity—that is, like Bernardo Tolomei, they got way centered. Saints were the Lord Jims if not the Bruce Waynes of their time and still are for those who live in areas like Latin America, where more Catholics reside than in any other part of the world, with readier access to a pew than to a multiplex.

Then there are the miracles. A saint needs to have performed two, either during his life or through posthumous intercession: one for beatification and a second for canonization, though the pope can waive the latter if he’s feeling generous. (The first step in the process, being declared “venerable” by the pope, does not require any.) But while they’re a sine qua non, miracles are not the engine of sainthood. In the halls of the Vatican, more thought is given to a good life story. It’s the moving quality of a saint’s vita that will carry him or her through. The most labored-over task in the process is the writing of the prositio, the formal argument for sainthood, whose “aim is to show an ordinary life that was lived in an extraordinary way,” Jeannine Marino, an American canon lawyer who works on sainthood causes, told me.

Take Pierre Toussaint, a freed black slave who died in the 1850s and is perhaps the current leading American candidate for sainthood. At the Vatican body that oversees canonizations, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, there are hundreds of active files, some centuries old, but Toussaint’s cause stands a better-than-average chance of success.

This has partly to do with internal politics and demographics: The United States has one of the largest and most active Catholic populations in the world, more so as the Hispanic population grows. But the country has produced just nine saints, only two of whom—Catherine Drexel, a nun from the Philadelphia banking family, and Elizabeth Ann Seton—were born in the States. * (Kateria Tekakwitha, a 17th-cenury Mohawk woman, has been beatified, though not canonized, at which point one becomes known as “a blessed.”) The last canonization of an American occurred this past October. Damian De Veuster was a priest from Belgium who ministered to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in the latter half of the 19th century and, like Drexel and MacKillop, achieved sainthood after his intercession was credited with miraculously curing a contemporary case of cancer. *

Medical cures have always been the most common form of miracle attributed to saints. The papacy is generally suspicious of other supernatural events—visitations from the Virgin, experiencing the stigmata, levitation. In the modern era, medical cures are the only type of miracle the papacy accepts. Toussaint’s intercession is believed by his fans to have cured a case of scoliosis.

But more than anything, Toussaint’s high standing at the Vatican owes to his “highly impressive” story, says the Rev. Paolo Molinari, a Jesuit who works in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In 1787, Toussaint emigrated from Haiti to New York City in the company of his owner, who died not long after. Rather than bolt, Toussaint remained with his owner’s widow, supporting her and her children by taking up hairdressing as a trade. Soon, Manhattan society women began seeking him out, and he made a small fortune, which he put into building an orphanage, taking in the homeless, and funding local parishes. “He made a lot of money, but he did not spend his money for anything else but to help the people in need, be they black or white,” said Molinari, who is Toussaint’s postulator—the potential saint’s chief advocate at the Vatican. “He had love even for the people who treated black people in an awful way.”

Molinari was originally contacted about Toussaint by John Cardinal O’Connor, the late archbishop of New York. He initiated the diocesan phase of the cause, the investigation of the subject’s life that takes place in the diocese in which he died, and directed a priest, William Elder, to write Toussaint’s prositio. When I reached Elder at the archdiocese, a copy of it was still sitting by his desk, filling two bound volumes, the informatio, which is the life story itself, the basis for the official vita, and the summarium, the testimonies of witnesses and other documents attesting to Toussaint’s heroic faith and good works. In 1996 Toussaint was declared venerable by John Paul II, kicking off the second, or apostolic, phase of the process.

Saint-making requires a great deal of funding. Woodward estimates that Drexel’s cause ended up costing about $1 million. Molinari and the other laity and clergy involved are not paid by the Vatican for the time they spend on Toussaint’s case, nor are the expensive consulting doctors who review the thaumaturgic events—the, er, scientific term for a miracle—attributed to him. Thousands of pages of materials must be copied and sent to Rome.

As for the miracles: In 2000, Lisa Peacock, a teacher in Silver Spring, Md., read about Toussaint in the Washington Post and was struck by him. She cut out the photograph of his portrait and gave it to her 5-year-old son, Joey, who suffered from scoliosis. Joey pleaded for Toussaint’s intercession. Two days later, the Peacocks went to John Hopkins Medical Center, where they learned that Joey’s scoliosis had, apparently, disappeared.

Lisa contacted the New York Archdiocese. Joey’s X-rays and records were sent to Rome, where they were inspected by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints’ medical review board. It wanted to wait for full bone development. According to Lisa, Joey, 15, now stands 6’3” and plays basketball and lacrosse. His latest X-rays, which show he no longer requires monitoring for the condition, have been sent to the congregation. It’s due to render a ruling soon, Molinari says.

At that point the hunt will begin for a second miracle, and Molinari will plead Toussaint’s case anew. This is easier than it once was. The canonization process used to resemble litigation, with the postulator and his allies pleading the would-be saint’s case and a promoter general of the faith, or devil’s advocate ( whence the term), arguing against it, citing evidence of misdeeds. The latter position was done away with in 1983.

Not that the Peacocks’ and Toussaint’s other fans necessarily need the Vatican’s blessing to hallow him: The official register of saints, the Bibliotheca Sanctorum, runs to roughly 10,000 names, but only a few hundred of those have been officially canonized since 993, when the papacy took up the practice. The rest are saints not because a pope said so, but because their neighbors and admirers did.

Correction, June 3, 2010: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Catherine Drexel was the only Catholic saint born in the United States. Elizabeth Ann Seton also was born in the United States. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 17, 2010: This article originally included the wrong date of
Damian De Veuster’s canonization. It was in October 2009, not March. Also, he was originally from Belgium, not “of Belgian descent,” though the church considers him American. (Return  to the corrected sentences.)

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