By Corinne Winter
On Sunday, Oct. 14, Pope Francis canonized seven new saints for the universal church. Best known among them are Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. As a matter of fact, I must acknowledge that those are the only two whose names I had heard before I read the news of the canonizations. Of the remaining five, two were priests, two were religious sisters and one was a layman. What is the significance of their canonization?
During my grade school years, we were surrounded by saints, pictures, statues and stories intended to remind us that heroic virtue was possible for humans. We had examples to follow or at least models whose holiness we might aspire to imitate in some small way. It seems that the recent canonizations serve to stress the holiness to which Pope Francis, in his recent exhortation, insisted that we are all called. Their lives help to illustrate the meaning of the Gospel lived out in the world, calling us to practice justice, service and prayer.
Pope Paul VI, elected in 1963 when the Second Vatican Council had only met for the first of its four sessions, received the challenge of leading the Council to its conclusion and of guiding the church toward its implementation. It was not an easy task. Many in the church were unsettled by the changes they saw. Others were impatient that changes were not happening quickly enough.
Pope St. Paul also demonstrated the commitment of the church to making a difference in the world. He addressed the United Nations on the 20th anniversary of its establishment, urging them to greater efforts for international justice, for an end to the arms race and the establishment of a just and lasting peace. He wrote a number of encyclicals on the same themes and on the need to respect human life at every stage.
Archbishop Oscar Romero is best known as a martyr for justice whose death led to international outrage against persecutions of the poor in El Salvador, an outrage that was long overdue. He himself had been a convert from thinking that the political situation was no business of the church to the conviction that the church and its leaders, though they should not engage in violence, were called to stand with the poor.
Other members of this latest group of canonized saints were known for their work among those in need. Sister Nazaria Ignazia first joined a congregation dedicated to the abandoned elderly and then founded a new community to promote human dignity. She served in Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Uruguay. Sister Maria Katharina Kasper established the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ to care for the poor, the sick and children. She served in the United States, Europe, South America, India and Africa. Father Vincente Romano was known for his labors to help those whom he served, especially the poor. He helped to rebuild his home town after much of it was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1794. Nunzio Sulprizio, the one lay person among the seven, strove to serve those in need despite his own suffering. He grew up poor and died at age 19, having suffered injury and illness that led to the amputation of one leg.
Father Francesco Spinelli was best known for his devotion to the Eucharist which led him to establish a community of sisters dedicated to eucharistic adoration, an activity that is seeing renewed appreciation and practice in the church today.
The recognition of these saints calls us to examine our own dedication to the call of the Gospel. I believe it also calls us to look around us for other examples of holiness. Not all saints are canonized. That process requires a great deal of time and effort. But many other people whose biographies will not be widely published inspire us by their generosity, their prayerfulness and by the courage of their convictions. As we look forward to celebrating the Feast of All Saints, let us give thanks for all who support us by their example and prayer.
(Corinne Winter is Professor Emeritus of Theology, St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)