Throughout my life, I have considered the Saints to be real friends who – like all good friends – are there for us, willing to help us when assistance is needed, and shining examples we can look up to and try to emulate. But for some years now, I have noticed something which troubles me more and more – there are very few recent lay Saints.
The most recent canonisation – the declaration by which someone is named formally as a Saint of the Catholic Church – took place in May this year in Rome, when ten new Saints were created. Of these, nine were clerics or religious – only one was a lay person. At that canonisation ceremony, the Holy Father said that “holiness does not consist of a few heroic gestures, but of many small acts of daily love”. And I absolutely agree with him. But surely there are lay people who are living examples of that holiness lived out daily? Surely this holiness is not only for priests, religious brothers and sisters, founders of religious orders and dead popes?
The Second Vatican Council spoke frequently about the “universal call to holiness” and was at pains to remind us that every single member of the Church, regardless of our state in life, is called to this holiness – it was very explicit in stating this. And so that holiness is possible for all of us – indeed in Chapter V of Lumen Gentium, the ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’, the Council fathers lay out a path we can walk in order to attain such holiness.
Now, Lumen Gentium was promulgated in November 1964. How many lay Saints have we had since then?
Speaking in 2011, Pope Benedict noted that “we are often led to think that holiness is a goal reserved for a few elect.” Yes – we are indeed led to think this. And the lack of very many lay Saints is the reason why we are led to think this – because this is the message which the Church gives us over and again, despite professing the contrary.
While Pope Benedict and his successors told us often that we are called to sanctity, the Church seems to overlook the lay person in placing authentic sanctity before us, if this can be judged by the paucity of lay Saints.
To be fair, true sanctity takes time; it is the work of a lifetime and it relies on the willingness of the person to co-operate with divine grace and in their willingness to walk that path. And while many are (or become) authentically holy in life, not all will be elevated before us through canonisation. Many of these souls will remain silent and hidden, known only to God and perhaps to a few around them. For canonisation to proceed the person has to have a reputation for true holiness, which is then placed before the Church and rigorously examined, successfully reaching three initial steps before finally moving to any declaration of sainthood.
Perhaps this process has some bearing on the proliferation of the canonisations of religious foundresses and superiors, and of popes – their immediate ‘audience’ were already ‘tuned in’ to the reality of the possibility of holiness; and that same audience were willing – and had the financial means – to make enough noise to drive forward a path toward sainthood. Probably not so for the deeply holy and very hidden housewife living in Essex or the elderly man dying quietly in the authentic ‘odour of sanctity’ in Strathaven. Regardless, at the end of all this, no canonisation will proceed (under usual circumstances) without divine approval in the form of miracles attributed to the intercession of the person.
Looking back over recent years, I can think of only a few examples of lay Saints.
In 2000, two of the three children of Fatima – brother and sister, Jacinta and Francisco Marto – were canonised. Although they had seen the Blessed Virgin, this was not why they were canonised; rather, it was because of the lives of deep and profound holiness which they lived, albeit briefly in human terms.
A second good – and very popular! – recent example is Blessed Carlo Acutis, beatified (declared ‘Blessed’, the final step before being made a Saint) in October 2020. In his case, what is clear is that his example touches a great many younger people in the world and in the Church, showing them that holiness is indeed possible for anyone – even for someone who died aged fifteen.
A third example is that of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, beatified in May 1990. As with Carlo Acutis, his example seems to specially touch younger people. Indeed, Pope John Paul II explicitly placed him before adolescents as an example to follow.
An example of a deeply holy person who is not (yet) a Saint, and a personal favourite of mine, is that of Venerable Matt Talbot, an Irishman who died in Dublin in the summer of 1925. Known primarily as a reformed alcoholic, his holiness extends far beyond this one aspect of his life. Matt’s story is proof positive that absolutely anyone can reach a degree of deep and authentic holiness, through the grace of God and by compliance with that grace. Although Matt’s life is presently being examined by the Church and is only at the second stage, it is now almost one hundred years since his death – yet his story is perfect for our world today, turned – as it so often is – away from God and seeking nothing more than self and pleasure. I am certain that Matt became a saint by his later years and I pray the Church will one day reach the same conclusion.
Outwith these holy souls and several others who were also examples of deep sanctity amongst the laity, almost all canonisations over many years have been of people who lived clerical or religious lives.
And whilst I am in no doubt of the sanctity of these souls, their very state of life – as priests or religious – makes them a step removed from me personally. I do not live in a convent or monastery and I have not made religous profession or vows. And so all these good people are truly ‘set apart’ from the life I have.
So where are the all the Saints in whom I might be able to recognise something of my own lay life, whose story might speak deeply to me, and who I can emulate because of their particular lives and the obstacles they overcame within those lives?
Where are the missing lay Saints?