During my zeal-filled neophyte year, I sometimes daydreamed about going off to some faraway land and being killed in odium fidei. Impressed with my bravery, the infidel leader would cry, “Shabash, Max Bahadur! Thou wearest the cross of a Frankish dog, but thou hast the heart of a ghazi!” before taking a Khyber knife to my carotid. Within five years, I’d be beatified, and people like Kathryn Lopez would be writing articles on why I deserved to be raised to the altars, even though I was in so many ways a scumbag.
Perhaps that sounds a bit lurid — indeed, discerning a vocation while reading Flashman might be a bad idea for anyone — but I’ve since learned that this type of fantasy is far from uncommon. St. Therese dreamed of being martyred in Vietnam; had she put out a hip-hop album instead of a spiritual autobiography, she’d have had to title it: Get Yourself Killed or Die Trying. Even my skeptical, anti-authoritarian mother once harbored ambitions of becoming a virgin martyr. Long into her adulthood, she could still tell you who got what hacked off in the reign of which demented, pansexual Roman tetrarch. (Diocletian racked up the highest body count, I believe.)
But why would we have these thoughts? Are we just a bunch of depressives who regarded Christian witness as a means of assisted suicide? Hopefully not. We may simply have recognized, with an unlikely mixture of piety and shrewdness, that the palm represented the quickest path through the gates. The editors of America Magazine might tend to agree. Not only are they calling for more lay saints, they’re specifying that a good share of the halos should go to people “who did not die in terrible circumstances (like St. Gianna Molla).”
That stipulation would exclude one candidate whose beatification the editors do approve — Piergiogrio Frasatti, a Turinese newspaperman and Azzione catolico activist who died of poliomyelitis he likely picked up from volunteering in a charity hospital. (Before taking ill, he attacked a pair of blackshirts, an act that could not help but melt my little Jewboy heart.) But rather than quibble, I’ll concede the point: When hagiographers and pleaders for a cause focus on a candidate’s death rather than his life — which Frasatti’s, to their credit, don’t — the whole thing gets a little morbid. As we’ve seen. The blood of the martyrs may be the seed of the Church, but Jiminy Christmas, somebody’s got to stick around long enough to water the thing.
The editors have other requests as well:
Though the logistics may be difficult, the church should find a way to recognize models of holiness in men and women who lived “ordinary” lives. These would include: someone other than a saint from the very earliest days of the church (like St. Joseph), someone who was not royalty (like St. Elizabeth of Hungary), a married person who did not found a religious order in later years (like St. Bridget of Sweden), a couple who did not initially plan to live as “brother and sister” while married (like Louis and Zélie Martin), someone who did not found a religious community or social movement (like Dorothy Day)
I agree in principle, but I find myself a little put off by two things. First, so many of these qualifications are expressed in the negative. That’s never a good sign. Second, they seem to be punting responsibility to the Vatican. Don’t the causes of saints typically get their impetus from below? I can’t imagine the head of a Vatican congregation screaming like a Hollywood mogul: “Monsignor! Did someone put retard juice in your grappa? I asked for ordinary. That’s O-R-D-I-N-A-R-Y, as in ‘ordinary time,’ cretino. What do you give me instead? A levitator. Is levitation ordinary? Do you levitate? No, you float, finocchio, but that’s a completely different subject. Now you get out of my office and get me Giuseppe and Giuseppina Six-Pack, or I swear by the shoes of the fisherman, you‘ll never take a siesta in this town again!”
The editors go on to make the point that promoting a cause requires far more in the way of money and technical know-how than most private individuals have access to. Fair enough. Most lay saints gained the patronage of a religious order (the Passionists sponsored Gemma Galgani) or an ecclesial movement (Focolare sponsored brand-new beata Chiara Badano). I suppose I’m just concerned that the bishops and investigators not be swamped. My mother is a saint. Wasn’t everybody’s?