Saints That Weren ’t
- Interesting article:
Saints That Weren’t
November 1, 2006
Saints That Weren’t
By JAMES MARTIN
EVEN though today is All Saints’ Day, most
Americans probably don’t know the name of the
newest American saint. Or that, like several
saints, she was mistreated by the church that she
served so faithfully.
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI declared Mother
Théodore Guérin, who lived and worked in rural
Indiana in the mid-1800’s, a saint. She is
therefore worthy of “public veneration” by
Catholics worldwide. Mother Guérin founded the
Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods
and started several schools and a college in the
You would think that this would have won her
favor from the local bishop. You would be wrong.
At the time, the idea of an independent woman
deciding where and when to open schools offended
Célestine de la Hailandière, the Catholic bishop
of Vincennes, Ind. In 1844, when Mother Guérin
was away from her convent raising money, the
bishop ordered her congregation to elect a new
superior, in a bid to eject her from the very
order of nuns that she had founded.
The independent-minded sisters simply re-elected
Mother Guérin. Infuriated, Bishop Hailandière
told the future saint that she was forbidden from
setting foot in her own convent, since he, the
bishop, considered himself its sole proprietor.
Three years later, Bishop Hailandière demanded
that Mother Guérin resign. When she refused, the
bishop told her congregation that she was no
longer superior, that she was ordered to leave
Indiana, and that she was forbidden from
communicating with her sisters. Her sisters
replied that they were not willing to obey a
dictator. The situation worsened until, just a
few weeks later, Bishop Hailandière was suddenly
replaced by the Vatican. From then on, the
Sisters of Providence flourished. Today its 465
members work in 10 states, the District of
Columbia, China and Taiwan.
Many people think of the saints as docile, but
Mother Guérin is not the only saint to have found
herself at odds with local bishops, church
officials or even the Vatican. Joan of Arc was
burned at the stake at the behest of church
officials. The writings of the great theologian
Thomas Aquinas came under suspicion during his
lifetime in the 13th century. And Ignatius
Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was jailed
during the Spanish Inquisition over complaints
about his ideas on prayer.
Somewhat more recently, in 1871, Mother Mary
MacKillop was excommunicated — the church’s
severest punishment — four years after founding a
religious order for women in Australia. One
biographer wrote that the bishops of the day were
intimidated by Mary’s “independent spirit and
steely character.” In 1995, Mary MacKillop was
beatified, the final step before canonization, by
Pope John Paul II.
The church’s long history of “faithful dissent”
offers both hope and perspective to Catholics
and Christians in our time. It echoes the call
of the Second Vatican Council, which, in 1964,
declared that expressing opinions “on matters
concerning the good of the church” is sometimes
an obligation for the faithful.
But, as some saints knew firsthand, a sincere
intention is no guarantee that everybody in the
church will listen — even today. Members of Voice
of the Faithful, the lay organization founded in
response to the sexual abuse scandals, are
sometimes barred from meeting in Catholic
parishes. Local chapters often gather in nearby
Protestant church halls. Who knows which future
saints are lurking there?
All Saints’ Day is a good time to remember that
while most saints led lives of quiet service,
some led the life of the noisy prophet, speaking
the truth to power — even when that power was
within the church.
Today the Catholic Church rightly honors all of
its saints, even those it once mistreated,
silenced or excommunicated. That includes Mother
Théodore Guérin. It makes you wonder what Bishop
Hailandière thinks from his post in heaven — or
wherever he is today.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is the author of
“My Life With the Saints.”
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