Local townsfolk in Wisconsin see Blessed James' example as a sign that "sainthood is not only our calling but something that is obtainable, with God’s help."
The Church celebrates February 13 the first feast day of the second native-born US martyr since his beatification last December in Guatemala.
Blessed James Miller was a Wisconsin native who lost his life in Guatemala in 1982, at age 37.
After Oklahoma native Father Stanley Rother, he is the second native-born American martyr to be beatified. Fr. Rother was also killed in Guatemala, some seven months before Brother Miller.
Blessed James’ hometown of Polonia, Wisconsin, is ready to celebrate the feast of their beloved “hometown hero.” But Brother James is remembered every day, not just on the anniversary of his martyrdom.
Parochial administrator Father Alan Guanella reflected with Aleteia about how Blessed James’ legacy affects the townsfolk of Polonia.
Aleteia: Does having a beatified “hometown hero” affect the way you pastor your parish? Or your outlook on your role as a priest?
Father Guanella: Having a beatified “hometown hero” does affect the way that I pastor the parish. When I preach on the universal call to holiness and how each one of us is called to be a saint, it is not something that people dismiss quickly. There are many people who knew Brother James and grew up with him. When I preach how each one of us is called to be a saint or to be ready to die for the Faith, the example of Brother James quickly comes into everyone’s thoughts.
Every saint walked the earth at some point in time. Around here, people remember Brother James—they knew him personally. That makes a difference in people’s lives. It allows people to see that sainthood is not only our calling but something that is obtainable, with God’s help.
There are relatively few American saints. Often it might seem that saints only come from far-off lands or in distant centuries. This is, of course, not true. People around here know where Brother James grew up. One of the main highways into town passes Brother James’ grave. All saints are models and examples of holiness and having Brother James be so close, the model and example he gives is all the more important.
When he was young, Brother James wanted to be a priest. He ended up becoming a religious brother when he joined the Brothers of the Christian Schools (the Christian Brothers). While I personally always felt some call to the priesthood, when I was at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota as an undergraduate (the same school Brother James attended), I seriously considered joining the Christian Brothers. In this, I see a special connection to Brother James. In the end, Brother James’ trust in Divine Providence is a model for us all. He said in 1981: “I place my life in His providence; I place my trust in Him …”
What a splendid rule to live by—that we place all our trust in God—our vocation, our life, our very being.
Aleteia: What do you think Brother James has to say to us today?
Father Guanella: At Brother James’ funeral at Sacred Heart Parish here in Polonia, the bishop of La Crosse, Bishop Frederick Freking, remarked: “I see in Brother James’ death the witness of Christ’s love, a witness to the dignity of the human person, and the right to freedom and justice that should be all of ours.”
This was said in 1982. There is even more need now in 2019 for witnesses to Christ’s love and witnesses to the dignity of the human person. In a world where the dignity of the human person is under attack, I do not think it is by chance that God would raise up Brother James as an outstanding example to the love of Christ and the dignity of the human person, especially of the poor.
The motto of the Brothers of the Christian Schools is Signum Fidei (the Sign of Faith). I believe that Brother James took this motto to heart: that he was to be the sign of Faith to all those he worked with—both in the United States and in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Now that we can call Brother James Miller Blessed Brother James Miller, he will be a Sign of Faith to all of us!
The founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, wrote in one of his meditations for the brothers: “Your zeal must go so far in this that to achieve it, you are ready to give your very life, so dear to you are the children entrusted to you.”
While this line is often quoted when referencing Brother James Miller, I think it’s important to read a little further on in that same meditation. De La Salle continues, “It is your duty, then, to admonish the unruly and to do this in such a way that they give up their former way of life; you must rouse up those who lack courage, support the weak, and be patient toward all.”
I believe that Brother James took these words to heart in his ministry as a religious brother. Now that he has been beatified, it is through his example and intercession that he can rouse up those who lack courage and support the weak throughout the world.