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Archbishop Sheen and the Dearth of U.S. Saints



Rachel Lu - published on 09/05/14

We need a St. Fulton Sheen and many more saints after him.
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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
th century or in China in the 20th. Probably the bleakest period in our history was our one very ugly civil war, but apart from that, our experience of warfare mostly hasn’t been of the generation-decimating sort.

September 11 lingers in my mind as one of the defining days of my youth, and it is certainly a sobering memory. Still, that was a day on which we saw the destruction of 3,000 lives and a few very significant buildings. Many other humans, historically and today, have seen entire cities or whole countries ravaged by war and tens of thousands killed.

Even adding all these points together, I still feel a little underprivileged as an American Catholic. Building a Catholic culture in a Protestant country is challenging, as is our present effort to come to grips with the forces of secularism and modernism. While those challenges aren’t totally unique to us, I do feel that our country’s prosperity, international prominence, and enormous diversity has forced us to confront them in a particularly pressing ways. And while our success has been mixed, I do feel some pride in the results of those efforts.

Over the course of the last century, American Catholics have forged a robust Catholic counter-culture that has stood up to the forces of secularism on multiple fronts. Friends in Europe and Canada have at times confessed to being a bit envious when they see the level of vitality that American Catholicism still has in the midst of a brutal culture war. Surely these struggles have produced a few figures worthy of canonization? Adding a few American saints would be a wonderful way of affirming that indeed, America does have its own robust Catholic culture.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen seems like an excellent candidate, and I would rejoice at his canonization. His optimism about the future of American Catholicism may look a bit naïve from where we currently stand, but he remains one of our country’s great evangelists. He was a stirring preacher, an insightful writer, and by most accounts an upstanding and virtuous human being.

Perhaps most significantly, he is a thoroughly American figure who embraced his Catholic faith and mission, wholeheartedly and with evident joy. In a time of great uncertainty, and with the possibility of harder days to come, his canonization would be a ray of hope. He is the perfect person to remind us that Protestant origins notwithstanding, we too must strive to build a Catholic society.

Pray for the canonization of Archbishop Sheen! Pray also that with his help, American Catholics might rise to meet the challenges that now lie before us.

Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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