The National Catholic Register is currently running a series on the causes of beatification for more than a dozen American Catholics. The American Church seems more interested than ever in investigating and promoting the canonization of its members. What are the reasons for the new interest? The article suggests a new appreciation for our Catholic roots, a new sense of historical perspective, and, of course, the action of the Holy Spirit.
I would include another reason linked to the Holy Spirit: a deep change of emphasis in American Catholic spirituality. The Church in America has always been focused on activity, so much that there actually exists a heresy called “Americanism”, which posits the superiority of the active to the contemplative life. Now, to be fair to our forefathers, “Americanism” was first articulated in France. Even so, a tendency to glorify apostolic activity was characteristic of our church for about a century. It was natural to focus on intense activity when the Church new to a vast country and had no institutions or infrastructure to receive impoverished catholic immigrants flooding in from Europe. As the century progressed, the activist habit stuck. In the sixties churchmen like Bishop Bernard J. Shiel of Chicago or Mundelein Seminary rector Ray Hillenbrand used to urge their priests to “get out of the rectories and save the neighborhoods!” Supposedly the souls did not need saving.
I have taught CCD in five or six parishes over the last decade and this “action first” mentality used to show up quite a bit in CCD textbooks. Most textbooks would have a chapter on saints, first mentioning antique figures like Vincent de Paul or Don Bosco, and then moving on to more contemporary examples of holiness: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and to throw in a Catholic, either Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez, Mother Theresa or Oscar Romero, take your pick. One CCD textbook, while admitting his “controversial lifestyle”, proposed Elton John as an example of modern day sanctity on the basis of his charitable giving. Granted, Elton John’s philanthropy is exemplary, and I do not feel comfortable criticizing other people’s private living arrangements. In fact, all of these modern day “saints” are admirable people, and causes of canonization are starting up for Day and Romero. But the criteria of holiness here is not an intense relationship with a personal God (in whom Gandhi did not believe), nor heroic virtue (at least not regarding sex if we include Elton John and King), but the politically correct social impact you have.
A canonization does not happen unless someone in a diocese or religious order takes a deep interest in seeing the process through to the end. Getting someone canonized takes years of investigation, promotion, and a stack of money. The nuns, priests and lay professionals who write CCD textbooks also fill the bureaucracies of dioceses and religious orders, so it was doubtful that America would ever get many canonized saints, since they equated social activism with holiness. Taking an aspect of Christianity, the institutional expression of charity, for the essence of it, they could never have recognized exemplary Christians except by accident.
The fact that we now have serious investigation into the lives of holy Americans from Fulton J. Sheen to Michael McGivney is a sign that more American Catholics, especially American clergy, are taking holiness seriously. If this is not the work of the Holy Spirit, what is?
David Monahan, LC studies for the priesthood at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
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