Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why aren't there more lay saints?

Comment from a reader on my previous post:

Just out of curiosity does anyone have any idea why excluding martyrs there are so few 'lay saints/blesseds'? The last time I counted I could only come up with seven, and three don't really count (St. Monica and Blds Louise and Marie Martin were the parents of Saints).

Interesting question. First of all, I wouldn't say that parents of saints "don't count." Presumably the assumption is that they only "got in" because of their kids. I think it is the other way around, that without the saintly parents we would not have had the saintly kids. So I would say that Louis and Marie Martin, as well as Monica, can stand on their own.

Also, if we want to be nitty-gritty specific, we would have to say that most of the Church's saints are probably laity in the strict, older sense of the word, inasmuch as the "laity" is distinguished from the "clergy." A layman is anyone who is not part of the hierarchy; i.e., does not have holy orders. By this very general definition, St. Francis, St. Benedict and every nun would be a lay person. The above definition of the laity is taken from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, but Lumen Gentium 31 defines the laity as "all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church." This is today the more common colloquial sense of the word, and essentially means "a normal person" or somebody not a priest or religious. Fair enough. Let's look at some of the Church's canonized/beatified saints and blesseds, excluding martyrs like St. Thomas More and St. Justin.

St. Helena, d. 330
St. Monica, d. 387
St. Edwin, d. 633
St. Wenceslaus of Bohemia, d. 935
St. Vladimir of Kiev, d. 1015
St. Henry, Duke of Bavaria, d. 1024
St. Stephen I of Hungary, d. 1038
St. Edward the Confessor, d. 1066
St. Margaret of Scotland, d. 1093
St. Louis IX of France, d. 1270
St. Catharine of Genoa, d. 1510
St. Juan Diego, d. 1548
St. Dominic Savio, d. 1857
St. Gemma Galgani, d. 1903

These are just a few of the sainted lay persons I can think of off of the top of my head; I'm positive there are more, especially if we count those like St. Bridget of Sweden who began as lay persons, lived their lives in the married state and then ended up as religious towards the end of their lives. If we take into account the beati (like the parents of St. Therese), I'm sure the list is much, much greater.

However, there are a few caveats with the above list. Of the fourteen saints listed, one, Monica, is the parent of a saint. One, Juan Diego, is a visionary who received an extraordinary apparition. Neither of them can really be called "normal" people. Then, nine of the remaining twelve were royalty. This doesn't mean they "don't count," but it means that they can hardly be said to have been "normal" people like you or I. They were the heads of states, known far and wide for their piety and devotion, but with the resources and freedom of kingship at their disposal with which to practice their faith. Most of us do not have private chapels, access to saintly confessors 24/7, royal alms set aside for charity, and great halls for receiving and clothing all the poor in our cities. Therefore, while the saint-kings are excellent role-models for rulers, they can't be said to just be "normal" people, though they certainly are lay people.

That leaves us only three: Catharine of Genoa, Dominic Savio and Gemma Galgani. From this list, we can strike out Dominic Savio and Gemma Galgani, both of whom would have become a priest and religious respectively if ill health had not carried them off.

Thus, we are left with St. Catharine of Genoa, who on my list at least, is the only lay-saint whom you could say was a normal, average person. She came from an upper-middle class family, got roped into a crappy marriage, spent a lot of years offering up her miseries until finally she and her husband experienced profound conversions, thereafter working together to care for the sick.

So, while on the one hand we can say that there are quite a few lay men and women who are saints, we also must add that there are not a lot of "normal" people who are saints or blesseds. Why is this?

Well, I could offer the politically-correct answer, which would be that this is due to the fact that the Church represses the laity in order to secure the power of the greedy clergy and that there really is no difference bewteen the lay and clerical states, and that the sooner we recognize this the sooner we will see more "down to earth" sanctity among the laity.

Or, I could give you the non-politically correct but I think more accurate answer as to why there aren't more lay saints: because they laity aren't that holy. Let's look at this.

A saint is one who strives for Christian perfection and attains some recognizable level of sanctity in this life. Christ told us the way to attain this perfection:

If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me (Matt. 19:21).

Here we have Christ's program for sanctity, and the origin of the evangelical counsels. What we can take from this is that a person is said to be a saint to the degree with which they conform their life to the evangelical counsels in imitation of our Lord.

But fulfillment of the evangelical counsels to the fullest extent necessarily implies a rejection of the world, even the things about the world that are good in and of themselves. This has been the basic understanding of pursuing holiness in the Catholic Church since day one. Pursuit of holiness in any serious way is usually connected with a very real and intense renunciation of the world.

Now, Lumen Gentium, however, says this of the laity:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature...the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven...they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs...(LG 31)

I'm not denying any of this is true, which it certainly is. But here is the problem - how can a class of people, who "by their very vocation" are "tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs" have a real chance at attaining a level of sanctity that, by its nature, demands a renunciation of worldly entanglements? It is extremely difficult.

I am certainly not saying that lay people can't be personally holy, but I am saying their state in life makes it extremely unlikely that the "average" person will attain the level of sanctity necessary to be beatified or canonized.

That is why any vision of a renewal of the Church that depends upon the laity stepping up and becoming holy independent of any renewal of vocations or institutional holiness of the priesthood or religious orders is bound to fail. Separated from the holiness of the hierarchy, the laity will not attain any holiness all, but will end up professing a kind of sham social-justice activism in place of it, as we see already professed by many even at the Diocesan level. You can't just take the approach of "well, listen here laity, we don't have any priests anymore, so you're all going to have to step up to the plate and do your part." It won't work.

Here's how you get a holy laity. First, get some holy priests , religious and bishops, who can fulfill the evangelical counsels and become truly saintly. Then, expose them to the people and watch grace do its perfect work.


Boniface said...

Oops...I forgot St. Gianna. She is a great lay saint who can be said to be an average person.

Jack said...

Thanks Boniface, also nice point about St. Gianna another.... what the word.... Oh yes TLM Saint :)

Curtis said...

Bl. Frederic Ozanam, co-founder of the Society of St.Vincent de Paul, husband, father, writer, professor at the Sorbonne.

Two others that are dear to me are Servant of God Frank Parater (technically a seminarian when he died, so not a lay person) and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati (a lay Dominican, so not purely a lay person, either)

Clare Mulligan said...

There are many more . . .

St. Joan of Arc
St. Joseph Moscati
Ss. Cosmas and Damien
St. Panteleimon
St. Benedict Joseph Labre

John Whyte said...

I think you almost hit the nail on the head when talking about "heads of state, known far and wide for their piety".

Becoming canonized is a long & expensive process. It requires the backing of the local ordinary, costs to the dioseace, and costs to the people promoting the cause. Additionally it requires that every aspect of a person's life be recorded.

Now if a 'lay saint' is humble, how many people are going to truely know it? Kings have high profiles, Bishops have high profiles, especially the Bishop of Rome. They are often 'watched' as people take an interest in what they do so their life record can be easily created.
Who could write your life story, or mine, after we die (probably at a ripe old age)?

Furthermore nuns and religious often have the 'quasi corporate' backing of their organisation. They have a vested interest in seeing members of their order canonized. They are able to keep searching for a recognised miracle. If you died how much effort would your family put into searching for it?

I'm not disagreeing with the system, in fact I fully support it. However I think that the result of the process means that only people with either
a) high profiles, or
b) have the backing of a group committed to seeing the process through
are likely to become canonized.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last commenter to a great extent. Not that these Saints have "corporate backing" but rather that their sanctity has been evident, and can be reviewed and established based upon their life environment.

I expect that when we get to Heaven (Please God!) we will find not only that most saints are from the laity, but that the most glorious saints will be from the laity. After all, many clergy are using their skulls as flagstones in a very hot place. Also, "From whom much has been given, much will be required. This may indicate that if you are given a vocation to priesthood or the religious life, you are given all of the environment, knowledge of the faith, and graces to become a great saint. If you do not conform to those graces, well...

The laity perform their sacrifices, virtues, charity, and martyrdoms in obscurity.


youth4EarthCare said...

All the faithful departed in heaven are "Saints". Even we remember all the unnamed Saints in 'All Saints Day'.

Boniface said...


I don't see anybody suggesting anything to the contrary...the question was in reference to canonized saints.

Anonymous said...

There's also St Drogo, St Guy of Anderlecht, and St Germain Cousin

Mary Ann Shannon said...

Yes, laity are taken up with the affairs of the world. They have to feed their children take care of their spouse and parents and siblings if needed, they need to work to support themselves. They have to pay taxes and be responsible for their own welfare. None of the above are required of clergy. They have the luxury of being supported and the time to pray and attend to spiritual matters.

There is also a preponderance of royalty as saints. Don't tell me this was not political in motive.

This is another example of clericalism which is at the root of the sex scandals in the Church, not to mention the atrocities in orphanages and other institutions that have been at the hands of clergy, both nuns and priests.