Published October 5, 2017 | En Español
Elizabeth Ann Seton became our first native-born American saint in 1975. Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress, then followed her to the altar and was canonized 25 years later. These extraordinary women of faith brought luster and pride to our nation.
Now it’s the “boys’” turn.
Blessed Stanley Francis Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma who was beatified Sept. 23, is our first martyred American priest. He was an extraordinarily loving and courageous pastor to the indigenous people of Guatemala. Solanus Casey, the humble Capuchin, who served as a doorkeeper for years in the Archdiocese of Detroit where his holiness brought thousands of people closer to Christ and his church, will be beatified in November. Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African-American priest, who served in my hometown of Chicago at a moment in time when the very idea of a Black Catholic priest was viewed as an anomaly at best, is now successfully proceeding through the processes of canonization.
These men, like the saintly American ladies before them, were unconventional and yet inspiring in the lives that they led.
Blessed Stanley and Solanus were farm kids who both found seminary studies a challenge. Stanley found the study of Latin a grueling task, and Solanus struggled with the German that was the current language of the Milwaukee seminary classroom. He eventually entered the Capuchins but was ordained a simplex priest without the faculties to hear confessions or to preach. But these men both excelled in holiness of life, which is much more important than a scholarly facility in Latin or a capacity with German. When I entered the high school seminary in 1961, failure to meet academic standards was still the most common cause for dismissal.
Intellectual competency continues to be a critical requirement in priestly formation, but true sanctity is even more essential. God’s people need and deserve learned clergy, but they need holy priests even more. Each of these three priests lived extraordinarily holy lives as their greatest claim to fame. The best combination, however, for any priest is to be both learned and holy—and holiness always trumps other qualifications, as Father Rother and Father Casey clearly proved.
As we begin to praise God for lifting up women and men of incredible holiness within our own nation, we should realize that holiness of life is not limited to another age, other lands and other cultures. God’s grace elevates saints within our own times—men and women who speak our language, look like us and belong to this very nation that we now love.
I have tried to emphasize that precise reality of sainthood with the youngsters that I confirm since they are at a very impressionable age. Our teenagers are often looking for heroes and heroines to inspire them. The list of famous people to whom they usually turn does not always provide worthy candidates for them to imitate. Our saints offer wonderful options—and not just for our kids to follow, but for our priests, laity, religious and even those of us who are bishops.
These U.S. saints inspire us to see that the ordinary people who manage to live these extraordinary holy lives can look and sound just like us. Perhaps that suggests that God is sending those very same graces even to you and me at this moment in time?