Sunday, October 06, 2013

On the Cult of Bridget the Brave

I usually don't post with an aim towards addressing issues of a purely local interest, but I think today's post can be beneficial to a broader audience, especially anyone who has ever had to deal with the problems arising from lack of discipline with regards to private apparitions or the veneration of unapproved local "saints." In Plymouth, MI., which is practically my own backyard, there has been a little controversy going on over a young girl who died of a brain tumor last year. This girl was 9 years old at the time of her death and had battled cancer courageously for a long time. Sure enough, shortly after her death, the young girl was being venerated as if her sanctity were beyond doubt. Many Catholics locally are praying to her, and relics of her are even being circulated, all of course without the permission of the local Ordinary. She even has a title she is being invoked under; "Bridget the Brave."

First of all, condolences to the family on the tragic loss of their beloved daughter. Losing a child is terrible, and while I do not know the pain first hand, I have known several people who have lost children and I offer my sincerest prayers and affections to the family. It is not my purpose in this post to address any questions about the person of young Bridget or her sanctity, but rather to address the question of the appropriateness of the veneration being offered to her so soon after her death.

I do not do this on my own initiative, but on behalf of those who have consistently asked about the propriety offering this sort of veneration to somebody who has no official cultus recognized by the Church. In fact, I have had multiple inquiries just in the past 30 days on this case. I don't know who is perpetuating the cult of Bridget the Brave, or to what degree the family is involved or how widespread it is, but it must be substantial based on the sorts of inquiries and reports I have been getting. For example, a friend of mine was recently in a car accident, and some local Catholics showed up offering relics of Bridget the Brave to be kept by the girl's hospital bedside.

The simple question that keeps coming up is this: What degree of public veneration is appropriate for a dead individual without any public recognition from the Church? The correct answer is none.

It is certainly true that a saint does not need to be canonized to have a public cultus. In fact, the recognition of an existing cultus is one of the criteria for beatification and canonization; it is a recognition by the Magisterium that a cult of veneration to that individual already exists and that the faithful have already recognized their sanctity. Thus, it might seem counter intuitive to suggest that no public cultus can exist without some sort of formal recognition, when in fact the existence of a public cult is a prerequisite for ecclesiastical recognition. Is this not a contradiction?

What we must keep in mind is that a public cultus is called into being by the local Ordinary. This is done by the Bishop formally asking the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to open a cause for the saint. Once the Congregation accepts the petition of the bishop and opens the cause, the individual receives the title "Servant of God." This is the "documentary" phase of the process, when the Congregation is busy looking over the life and doctrine of the candidate.

"Servant of God" is the lowest "rank" a person on the path to canonization may have. What sort of veneration is permissible at this stage? The most recent declaration here is the Congregation's 2007 instruction Sanctorum Mater, which states:

"Any solemn celebrations or panegyric speeches about Servants of God whose sanctity of life is still being legitimately examined are prohibited in Churches. Furthermore, one must also refrain, even outside of Church, from any acts which could mislead the faithful into thinking that the inquiry conducted by the Bishop into the life of the Servant of God and his virtues or martyrdom carries with it the certitude that the Servant of God will be one day canonized."

While obviously liturgical celebrations and homilies about the Servant are forbidden, the instruction declares that "even outside of Church", any actions are prohibited which might mislead the faithful into thinking the Servant's sanctity was already declared or that their canonization is inevitable. This would preclude publicly offering the Servant titles like "Bridget the Brave", encouraging groups or individuals to ask for her intercession, and especially things like passing around alleged relics. In fact, the Code of Canon Law 1187, which addresses veneration of relics and images, states that no relic can be publicly venerated unless that individual has been officially recognized by the Church as at least a blessed. Passing relics around and distributing them in hospitals and calling them "relics" does constitute public veneration, in my opinion at least.

Please note this is not even appropriate activity for one who has been deemed a Servant of God. Bridget has not even been declared a Servant of God by the Congregation of Causes for Saints. In fact, the local Ordinary (Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit) has not even submitted a report to the Congregation yet; in fact, the Ordinary has not given any sort of recognition to the cultus of Bridget whatsoever. All that has happened so far is the family has consulted the parish priest about trying to get a cause established and some documentation has been collected. If the above mentioned activities are not appropriate for a Servant of God, it should be beyond doubt that they are not appropriate for someone of Bridget's status.

It is evident that there is nothing even remotely close to an officially recognized public cultus. Therefore, what sort of veneration is appropriate? If those who knew this girl want to promote her sainthood, the thing to do is to collect evidence of her sanctity, spread the word about her heroism, pray for the public recognition of her sanctity, and petition the local Ordinary to ask the Congregation to open a cause. But remember that the Congregation does not have to open a cause, and that there is no absolute certitude Bridget the Brave is currently in heaven, or that she exhibited heroic virtue in life. Therefore, public or private prayers addressed to Bridget the Brave are not appropriate; nor is it appropriate to pass "relics" of this young girl around as if her sanctity were already self-evident. It is for the Congregation to decide on her sanctity, not the laity at large.

We must keep in mind the decree of Pope Alexander III (1173), who, when he heard a bishop was allowing veneration of a man who had not been formally approved by the Church, declared, "You shall not therefore presume to honor him in the future; for, even if miracles were worked through him, it is not lawful for you to venerate him as a saint without the authority of the Catholic Church." (Lambertini, De Servorum Dei, "On Heroic Virtues", c. 1:21 and Gregory IX, Decretales, III, "De reliquiis et veneratione sanctorum").

We applaud the pious wishes of the folks involved in this case to promote an heroic example of Christian suffering and holiness. But all things must be done in proper order, and to publicly invoke the girl as if her sanctity were already beyond doubt and pass around relics are not appropriate actions at this point. If this sweet girl truly is a saint, may the Church recognize her sainthood! But we must wait on the Church before presuming to offer her the sort of veneration that can only come with the approbation of the Church.
And in the meantime, as we wait for that day to come, continue to pray for Bridget.

For more information on the scrutiny that is meant to go into a canonization process, please see this article on the history of canonizations with relation to the office of the Devil's Advocate.


Konstantin said...

So not even private prayers to someone who died in the odor of sanctity are permitted? I always thought this was ok. I once read in an old Jesuit magazine (1920's) written by a Jesuit priest lamenting the small number of German saints after the "reformation" and cites an encounter with religious who would hesitate to invoke someone who died in the odor of sanctity (I'm not sure if that person was declared a Servant of God already) because they wanted to wait for "Rome to act first". I remember this seemed like a reprimand from the author of said article.

Boniface said...

The article in question concerns public veneration; not just praying privately, but encouraging others publicly to do so, and passing "relics" around. Totally different when it is being promulgated like that.

Anonymous said...

Dear Boniface,

I don't have "a dog in this hunt," but I think that you are misunderstanding the term "public" and its derivations.

A person passing around relics of a potential saint is not a public event. A sermon, homily, parish promoted procession, involvement of a deacon/priest/professed religious/bishop, or an explicit lay apostolate are public things. But a small group of people who are convinced of a person's sanctity, and are promoting it, and, at the same time seeking miracles to confirm it (remember, they needed one at every stage of the process before), are not publicly promoting the veneration. In this case, much as in the case of offering the Traditional Mass (prior to 2007), "public" tends more towards meaning that the person responsible is invoking the name of the Church in support of their action, rather than simply doing their private devotions where others can see them.

Otherwise, we'd never have many if not most of the saints that we do. After all, we cannot expect political factions to shout "Santo Subito" in unison, every time somebody goes to heaven.


Boniface said...


Well, from the article I said as much. I said:

It is certainly true that a saint does not need to be canonized to have a public cultus. In fact, the recognition of an existing cultus is one of the criteria for beatification and canonization;

But the 2007 instruction says, "Furthermore, one must also refrain, even outside of Church, from any acts which could mislead the faithful"

I disagree with you on the passing of relic; the passing of a body part presupposes that it is already a relic, which in turn presupposes her sanctity.

Anonymous said...


Bridget the Brave is not a title. She was given the name Bridget the Brave by the hospital staff while she was very much alive during her five year battle with cancer. I do not think that her loved ones should stop using it now because you have mistaken it's origin and declared that it was a title added posthumously.

Additionally, many people have asked Bridget's parents if they could have some small item that Bridget owned. Perhaps these are the items that are referred to as relics in your original article. No one is walking around with Bridget's body parts. You are making an erroneous assumption in your reply to Paul's comment. Perhaps you should do a little more research on the individual facts before making general assumptions that may mislead your readers.

Bridget demonstrated a faith and fortitude that touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people during her short and inspirational life. That many of those people believe that she is a saint understandable. That those people also wish to share that belief with others is natural. The process you mention is underway. A priest is collecting the accounts of faithful people that believe they have experienced miracles through Bridget. I am hardly an expert on Catholicism but it defies logic to expect that this priest could collect the needed information if people stopped asking Bridget to intercede for them.

I agree with Paul that most of your post is based on your perception of what is public. I hope your readers will prayerfully consider what is public and what is private in regards to this issue before they take your opinion as fact.