[Austen Ivereigh] Pope Francis yesterday declared a third category of holiness recognizable by the Catholic Church that could have far-reaching consequences for the way sainthood is viewed in the contemporary age.
In his motu propio or papal edict dated July 11, entitled Maiorem Hac Dilectionem — “Greater Love Than This” — Francis defines a new class of saint:”Those Christians … who …have offered their life voluntarily and freely for others and have persevered in this to death.” The title of the edict — so far available only in Latin and Italian — comes from Jesus’ words in John 15:13, that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.
The pope writes: “It is certain that this heroic offering of life, suggested and sustained by charity, expresses a true, full and exemplary imitation of Christ and, therefore, is worthy of that admiration which the community of the faithful have usually reserved for those who have voluntarily accepted the martyrdom of blood or have exercised the Christian virtues to a heroic degree.”
It is the first major change to sainthood procedures in centuries. Until yesterday there were two categories of sainthood, and a third way of declaring holiness without the need of either category.
The two usual categories — into which virtually all saints recognized by the Church fall — are martyrdom (in which a person is killed out of odium fidei, or hatred of the faith) and virtue, that is, a person whose life that displays the virtues of Christian life to a heroic degree. Both of these require documentary evidence and proof of miracles.
The third is not a category of sainthood, but a process, known as an “equipollent” or “equivalent” canonization, in which the pope can bypass the usual processes and procedures and simply declare a person to be a saint because, in effect, he can be absolutely sure he or she is. Pope Benedict declared Hildegard of Bingen a saint, as did Pope Francis with Peter Faber, without the need for a process because the People of God recognize them as such (See CV Comment).
What Francis has done now is to introduce a third category of holiness: neither a martyr nor someone who displays heroic virtue but who freely volunteers their life to save others. There are three essential criteria:
- There must be “the free and voluntary offering of life and the heroic acceptance out of charity of certain death in a short term” as well as “a link between the offering of life and the premature death.
- There must be the “practice of the Christian virtues, at least to an ordinary degree, before the offering of one’s life, and then until death”.
- There must be the fame and signs of sanctity after death, and therefore the need for a miracle as a result of his or her intercession.
The edict is the result of a longstanding discussion within the Congregation of Causes for Saints, which carried out an in-depth study of the new proposal in early 2014. After extensive consultation, the cardinal and bishop members of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes approved the new measure in 2016.
Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, congregation secretary, said the addition is meant “to promote heroic Christian testimony, (that has been) up to now without a specific process, precisely because it did not completely fit within the case of martyrdom or heroic virtues.”
What kind of testimony could the edict cover? Archbishop Bartolucci gives the example of Christians who willingly put their lives at risk by, for example, serving people with highly infectious diseases, and then dying of that disease.
Another example might be Chiara Petrillo, a 28-year-old Italian woman who refused treatment for carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, while pregnant because it would have risked the life of her unborn child. She died in 2012, nearly a year after giving birth, when the cancer had become terminal and treatment was ineffective.
Or there is Fr Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar and New York Fire Department chaplain who rushed to the scene of the twin towers following the 9/11 attacks, and was the first recorded death that day.
At Crux, John Allen gives the example of two Catholic missionaries killed in Burundi in 2011, Croatian sister Lukrecija Mamić and Italian layman Francesco Bazzani. They were not killed out of odium fidei — in fact, the killers were likely to have been Catholics also — but because they were in the way during the robbery of a convent.
But despite the dangers, lawlessness and phenomenal risks involved in choosing to live in that corner of Burundi, says Allen, “they chose to stay there, among some of the world’s most forgotten and exploited people, because their faith compelled them to do so. To use the language made popular by Pope Francis, they risked their lives, and ultimately gave them up, to serve victims of a “throw-away culture” on the peripheries of the world.”
Allen points out that the new edict also cuts through a longstanding difficulty with many of the martyrdom cases, which involve examining often mixed or dubious motivations on the part of the killer.
Thus the cause of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador slain at the altar in 1980 after speaking out against the army’s repression of the poor, was for a long time held up by those who argued that his death was the result of political disagreement, rather than “hatred of the faith” (again, Romero’s killers were Catholics, at least culturally).
Another example given by Allen: when St John Paul II canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest who volunteered to take the place of a stranger in the Auschwitz death camp in 1941, some theologians and canonists objected on the grounds that Kolbe wasn’t put to death for his religious convictions. When John Paul canonized him in 1982, he termed the Polish priest a “martyr of charity”, which is a good name for the new category of saint Francis has now declared.
In short, says Allen, Francis “may have untied a theological knot that’s long hobbled efforts to venerate the memory of contemporary victims of anti-Christian persecution.”
In reminding the world that love for others is the primary feature of any saint, Francis has also put self-sacrificial giving at the heart of the Christian witness. The men and women he will be raising to the universal altars alongside the martyrs and the heroically virtuous are a sign of contradiction to the ethic of autonomy and the me-first obsessions of our culture.