Saints light our path to Christ

By Dr. Michael Downey

 Some years before he was elected pope on April 19, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger remarked in an interview that the two great arguments for the truth of the Catholic faith are the beauty of art and the lives of the saints. 


 In this Year of Faith, this is a helpful insight. And as we begin in earnest to take up the task of the New Evangelization, we might keep in mind that we will likely be unsuccessful if our focus is on inviting our friends and family members to a “fresh encounter with Jesus Christ” (See John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America [January 22, 1999]) through our words – no matter how passionate they might be – or explanations. The same is true for those who see the task of being Catholic today as a war waged against the prevailing culture. 

 In art—be it music or sculpture or painting or architecture or poetry—and in the saint, we are not confronted with propositions, formal arguments, doctrines or intellectual wrestling, but with beauty and goodness. When the heart is moved, the head may follow. If only the head is moved, and the heart remains unaffected, whatever the head decides will be on shakier ground than we think. We know that if our convictions are based only on emotion, they will be unstable. But all too often we undervalue the role our affectivity plays in grounding our thought in truths and realities that are not always perceptible through the intellect.

 At the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith bishops from throughout the world met to talk about topics of great importance. There were verbal presentations (called interventions) on various topics related to the New Evangelization by the Synod fathers. These will be summarized in the words of the Post-Synodal Exhortation on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Faith which will likely be released by Pope Benedict XVI in about a year’s time as the Year of Faith draws to a close on November 24, 2013.

 In the course of the Synod several men and women were canonized. Crowds gathered in Saint Peter’s Square as the pope read the names of those who are the newest members of that blessed communion who bear the name “saint.” Two of these have particular importance for those of us living in the United Sates. Both are women. There is Marianne Cope, a German-born Franciscan Sister of Syracuse, New York who left her “second home” in Syracuse to help Damien of Molokai to care for the leprous women and girls in Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The second woman is Kateri Tekakwitha, the first “native American” or “indigenous” saint of North America. Taking a cue from Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, let us look to Saint Kateri as one who embodies the best “argument” for the truth of the Catholic faith during this Year for Faith.

 • She was born in a time of religious and political turmoil much like ours. At the age of four, her parents and baby brother died of a disease. The disease permanently disfigured her face. The indigenous peoples “blamed” the white missionaries who had come to North America to bring the Gospel. 

 • Despite the objections and lack of support from her own clan, she came to know and love Christ. She was raised by relatives who planned her marriage, which she refused. She had hopes of becoming a Woman Religious, a Sister. Her request to start a new community of Sisters for young women like herself – indigenous and disfigured – was denied. 

 • Her plan, like many other of her hopes, was dashed. She lived a committed single life – understood even less in her day than in ours! In this unusual path she found a way to love and serve Christ. 

 • Like so many young people today, she was of two nations. Born in what is now upstate New York, after her baptism she fled to Canada in what is now Quebec in order to avoid persecution. Kateri was a “marginal person” trying to negotiate different cultures (indigenous and French) and languages while following the Great Spirit of the Living God in her heart. People in the US and the peoples in Canada, especially those of the “First Nations,” that is the indigenous peoples of Canada, are claiming her as their saint! 

 Kateri is a supremely good guide for us as we walk through this Year of Faith together. She is a light for so many of us who find in the face of the immigrant – which like Kateri’s is not always very pretty because of the effects of disease, poverty, and suffering – yet another reflection of beauty and goodness. But it is in these faces that Christ meets us in a fresh encounter, without which all our words, programs, initiatives and arguments are misguided.

Dr. Michael Downey is Diocesan Theologian and Director of the Office of Continuing Formation of Priests.