at ‘peace’ Mass
Extraordinary ‘ordinary people’
By William West
For the past year I have been researching a book about lay saints who could be described as “ordinary people”. You might think that after 2000 years, Christianity would have produced countless saints who fall into this category.
After all, Catholicism was from the beginning a religion aimed at just such “ordinary” people. You need look no further than the New Testament accounts of the Apostles and other disciples to see what a central role lay people played in the early Church.
Nevertheless, comparatively few lay people have been officially beatified or canonised by the Church. And few of those fit into the category of working people who lived lives similar to the vast majority of us who live with our families and work nine to five.
I first started thinking about the book after hearing an Australian bishop lament that, while he read Butler’s Lives of the Saints daily, he was disappointed to find that so few were ordinary lay people.
I found that there had been some books published already. Probably the best example is Secular Saints by Joan Carroll Cruz. But even here, many of the saints were very different from most lay people.
The majority were martyrs and while the ultimate sacrifice they made is truly inspirational, most lay people are not called to martyrdom. Martyrs are not canonised on the basis of the heroic virtue they lived day in, day out, but on the basis of one heroic act.
Another big group of lay saints are members of royalty - kings, queens and others whose lives were very different from the workaday lives of the people who make up the majority of lay faithful. And the other large group among lay saints are those who lived lives that were so similar to people in religious orders that the distinction seems to be arbitrary. They dedicated much, if not most, of their lives to living poverty in a radical way and to prayer, penance and helping the poor. Such lives may not be the best model for people working 60 hours a week and trying to bring up a family.
So who is left? The bad news is that, although millions of Catholics must have been saints in the sense that they lived heroic virtue and went to heaven, very few of them have been raised to the altars. The good news is that among those who have become saints, there are some truly inspiring stories.
Some, like Bl Anna Maria Taigi, were granted astonishing supernatural favours by God. But this Italian woman, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, did not go looking for miracles. She was an ordinary wife and mother who spent most of her life looking after her husband and seven children, along with relatives, friends and others. She found time for daily Mass, for regular reconciliation and prayer, but she never let this get in the way of her ordinary duties.
Lay saints who received miraculous powers are the exception, rather than the rule. More typical were the lives of people like the lawyer, Bl Contardo Ferrini, and doctor, St Joseph Moscati, whose heroism was expressed in dedication to their professional work and assisting family, friends and others who needed their help.
One of the most interesting discoveries has been that only two secular priests appear to have been made saints - the Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, and the founder of Opus Dei, St Josemaría Escrivá. The canonisation of Escrivá has been a particularly encouraging event for ordinary lay people, given that his life’s work was to spread awareness of the call to sanctity “in daily life and the fulfilment of the ordinary duties of a Christian”. Although this message was once controversial - and even attacked by some as heretical - it was confirmed by Vatican II and became a cornerstone of its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Today the life of lay people is recognised as a full vocation in the Church.
The push for lay saints has extended well beyond Opus Dei. Pope John Paul II has been striving in many ways to increase awareness of the call to sanctity among lay people. He has done this partly by canonising a record number of lay people. And more of them are appearing in lists of those whose causes for sainthood have been presented to the Holy See.
The Church has entered an exciting new era of lay sanct-ity. Hopefully the day is not far off when bishops and others will no longer lament that there are so few lay saints in the Church’s calendar.
William West is a freelance journalist and writer based in Sydney.