Pope Francis has made Saints of his two predecessors, Pope John, and Pope John Paul. It made me think about how as a Catholic child I would pore over my copy of Lives of the Saints, drinking in the miserable pain racked lives of these fiercely devoted, entirely disturbed group of people. Rose of Lima, fearful of vanity would blister her face with pepper. Gemma Galgani ‘blessed’ by the stigmata, starved herself and suffered from spinal tuberculosis. St Catherine of Siena drank pus. (Not on a regular basis – I think she was making a point. About what I can’t imagine).
For non papals, the process of becoming a Saint is arduous and requires both a minor and a major miracle. Pope John made heroic efforts to save Jews which is good enough for me, but in Catholic terms, I thought he was supposed to have cured a few nasties as well. For Pope John Paul, a woman who suddenly recovered from a brain tumour was enough. Although the other ‘miracle’ might have been how he managed to completely ignore the growing evidence of clerical abuse within the church.
Not a Pope? Want to be a Saint?
It’s no good just spending your life tending others, or everybody on the coal face of the NHS would be sporting halos. You have to be seen to be serving God. If you’re a woman you can forget about having a few wild years first as well. Remember that the religious Oscar has traditionally favoured passive and penitent women. Had St Joan of Arc spent more time shivering in a convent, rather than striding around in men’s clothes and leading armies, she might not have taken nearly five hundred years to get canonized. (St Joan was burned at the stake in 1431 and canonized in 1920). Far better to emulate St Rose of Lima, a reclusive anorexic, who spent her life in prayer and abject penance, strewing her bed with broken glass, and apologising profoundly for being female. Her reward for this lifelong misery was canonization only fifty-four years after her death in 1617. Best to forget sex too. In his Treatise against Jovinianus, AD393, St Jerome thundered: “The truth is that, in view of the purity of the body of Christ, all sexual intercourse is unclean”. So regard his words as frustrated misogyny if you must, but any wannabe saint will see it for the piece of holy career advice, it is.
Unfortunately, death is a prerequisite for canonization. Martyrdom, however, may hasten the process, particularly for virgins, murdered horribly for rebuffing an appalling bloke. Thus, the wise and educated St Catherine of Alexandria might be the patron saint of philosophers and scholars, but she’s better remembered for a peeved emperor’s attempt to torture her on a spiked wheel. Don’t despair though (it’s a sin). If martyrdom is not an option, self-neglect may produce a debilitating illness, which should make life commendably wretched before finally killing you. (See Rose of Lima, Catherine of Siena, and Gemma Galgani)
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints
Before the canonization process, known as ‘a cause’ can begin, according to the Vatican Press Office, ‘it is necessary for at least five years to have passed since the death of the candidate which dissipates the emotion and allows greater balance and objectivity in evaluating the case.’ A diocesan tribunal is formed to gather documentation and witnesses which will (hopefully) testify to your heroic Christian virtues. If you pass, don’t get too excited: at this stage, you’re only entitled to be a ‘Servant of God’. Your case then passes to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. After intense scrutiny by various theologians, cardinals and bishops, your application finally lands on the desk of His Holiness the Pope.
Appear in a Vision
Though not compulsory a ‘personal’ appearance never hurts. Do, however, take a tip from the ultimate apparition professional, namely Our Blessed Lady herself. Her appearances to simple religious innocents’ like St Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, and the three shepherd children in Fatima, meant no awkward questions. Never appear to a journalist. You want your audience in a state of religious fervour, not whipping out a notebook to demand an exclusive.
Sometimes, a fastrack approach is used. In 1902, Maria Goretti and her family, out of poverty were sharing their home with the Serenelli family. The son, Alessandro, had been sexually harassing the eleven year old Maria. Her widowed, and dirt poor mother Assumpta was powerless to protect her. When Maria refused again to have sex with him saying it was a ‘mortal sin’ (and rape – but she was a good Catholic girl and got her priorities right) Alessandro stabbed her fourteen times with a corn cutter. She died a few days later in hospital. Alessandro was jailed and remained uncommunicative for three years, until he was visited by the local bishop with whom he had a private conversation. Shortly after Alessandro claimed that he had seen Maria in a vision, carrying lilies and she had forgiven him.
This is one view of Maria
This is what she actually looked like.
In Aileen La Tourette’s book, the narrative is one of grinding poverty, where girls and women have no power and Alessandro, although he later became an obedient mouthpiece of the Church, railing against ‘immoral pictures’ was also a victim of his father’s bullying and mockery about ‘being a man’. Maria’s speedy canonisation was in part about the Pope Pious XII (the one who has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust) who wanted a saint as an icon of purity against the glamorous American GI’s who were marching through Italy at the end of World War Two. Maria was canonized in 1950.
Let us presume you have managed to sidestep a decision between multiple stab wounds or impurity but to make up for being alive, have made yourself thoroughly miserable. Gemma Galgani’s flamboyant suffering was too much for the local convent in Lucca and they refused her entry, so she lived a life of stigmata and starvation, an object of curiosity. God was her lover and her saviour, but like the worst kind of abuser, demanded mind, body and spirit. But she got her reward and was canonized in 1940.
So you’ve led a life of starvation, flamboyant suffering, and now it’s time to die. But before you go, don’t forget the miracle clause.
The Miracle Clause
At this point, an element of spiritual proactivity is required, in the form of a proven miracle. This is an event or effect that can’t be explained by the laws of nature, which may be why curing a terminal disease, has traditionally been a popular choice. Once verified by the Vatican, the Pope confers beatification and the title of ‘Blessed’ upon you. Unfortunately, another miracle is required before final canonization.
Maria Goretti while undergoing a hopeless operation for her stab wounds, without anaesthetic, forgave Alessandro
However, if you’ve been martyred for your faith, you’ll be let off the miracle clause altogether. Ever the over achiever, St Joan of Arc reportedly cured two cases of cancer and a nasty leg ulcer. Not one to take any chances with her application, she also saved France and died a martyr’s death. But Joan was a rare female Saint, a go-getter, a doer. No wonder it took so long.
And once this second miracle is verified, the Pope will upgrade you from ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint’. You will be honoured and prayed to by millions for all eternity. Because for a religious celebrity, when it comes to pleasing your public, death is only the beginning.
I looked at a picture of Assunta Goretti, Illiterate and deeply religious, she forgave Alessandro Serenelli. She must have been overwhelmed by the sudden attentions from the highest echelons of the Catholic Church. Would she have even dared to feel anger at her daughter being operated on without anaesthetic? Or grief at her inability to protect her child – the first duty of a mother, but she was so poor that they were forced to live in the same house as a man who was openly harassing her child? Would it have crossed her mind that her child was being used as a religious pawn? In the stories about Maria Goretti, the word ‘rape’ is hardly ever mentioned.