Aleteia

Archbishop Sheen and the Dearth of U.S. Saints

Jeffrey-Bruno
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We need a St. Fulton Sheen and many more saints after him.

I was sad to hear yesterday that the case for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization had been suspended, perhaps indefinitely, owing to a dispute concerning the Archbishop’s remains.

This is particularly disappointing given that the process appeared to be moving forward in light of a recent miracle involving the inexplicable recovery of a stillborn child.

Both Bishop Jenky of Peoria and Cardinal Dolan of New York have encouraged the faithful to continue praying for God’s will to be revealed in this matter.

I’m not privy to the details of this particular dispute, but I think it would be well for all of us to pray for Archbishop Sheen’s case, and also more generally for the American church to be blessed with more saints. We need them. American Catholicism is impoverished by our relative dearth of canonized saints.

This is not to suggest, of course, that Catholics can only admire or implore saints whose nationality they share. The Church is universal, and I think we can be confident that the saints are interested in every soul, and in the general progress Church Militant. There have been times in the history of Christendom when the faith became too tightly intertwined with nationalistic fervor, and that can be dangerous. As Christ reminded us, his Kingdom is not of this world; that being the case, we too should be prepared to look beyond earthly Kingdoms.

Still the point remains that we all learn the faith in the context of a particular time and culture. Our understanding of Catholicism will certainly reflect the time and place in which we learned it, and it’s only natural that it should. The truth is universal, but certain components of the repository of truth may be more or less relevant to a given age. For example, many undergraduate students have told me how they were brought to the faith through their participation in the pro-life movement. That’s perfectly reasonable, given that our society is coping with the evils of abortion on, quite literally, an industrial scale. Abortion was just as wrong in other societies, but other Catholics may not have had to confront it in quite such a serious way.

This small example speaks to a broader truth: Catholicism can be integrated into different societies in different ways. We come to understand ourselves as Italian Catholics or Irish Catholics or American Catholics, not because the faith is intrinsically tied to our nationality, but because our own lived experience of it is connected in many ways to that culture. That is why, as the Church has always understood, people naturally look to their own national saints with particular affection and respect. They enable us to take pride in our own religious culture, and they offer a more tailored tutorial in how to live the faith in our own time and place.

Why, then, do we not have more American saints? I find this a perplexing question. Some of the reasons, of course, are fairly obvious. Set against the lifespan of the Church, ours is quite a young country, and its roots are primarily Protestant. Maybe there are fewer American Catholic saints because there have been fewer American Catholics.

Another consideration is that our country’s history has been relatively peaceful and happy, at least if we measure it up against historical accounts of human suffering. American Catholics have, on account of their faith, suffered the smaller-scale indignities of social exclusion and the loss of worthwhile opportunities. Very few, though, have been martyred.

It’s also worth noting that America has comparatively little experience with large-scale human tragedy. That may be significant, since saintly characteristics often shine through in times of extreme hardship. So, for example, our country has never experienced famines, plagues or natural disasters of the sort seen in medieval Europe, in Ireland in the 19