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Spirit Moves is a topical discussion programme on RTE which explores ethical issues that arise from current news events. Presenter, Susan McReynolds, and guests also explore questions of life and death that affect us all

Is it still relevant to have devotion to saints?

Is it still relevant to have devotion to saints? Fergus O’Donoghue was on the panel of RTE Radio’s discussion programme Spirit Moves on March 18. Prompted by the Feast of St Patrick, the discussion concerned devotion to saints. Here are some excerpts from the lively exchange.


18th March 2007: On this week’s programme, the day after the feast of St Patrick, Susan McReynolds, together with broadcaster, Mary Kennedy, Senator David Norris, and Jesuit historian, Fr. Fergus O’Donoghue examined what relevance the saints have in people’s lives today.

Susan McReynolds wonders if we can make any sense of the tradition of venerating saints. Would St Patrick, she asks Fr Fergus O’Donoghue, be able to make sense of it?

FO’D: Patrick is a man who is almost our contemporary in his anxieties, in his lack of security, in his being constantly subject to criticism, in working in a culture which was unfamiliar to him, and in his own sense of doubt, because in the Confession, which is a superb document, we have the man’s whole history laid bare, including his early indifference to the faith, despite the fact that his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. And then we have his conversion as a teeenager, in dire circumstances, and his dedication to a people about whom he knew very little. Because although we’re celebrating him this weekend as the quintessential Irishman, we all know that he wasn’t Irish. But he is in so many ways our contemporary.

MK: And St Jude was the one for exams as well, wasn’t he?

FO’D: No, Joseph of Cupertino, the man who prayed that he would be asked only the questions he knew. Every summer, in the Press newspapers – the Sunday Press, the Irish Press and the Evening Press – the prayer to St Joseph of Cupertino would be published.

MK: Well, obviously the people I knew were praying to St Jude, as they were hopeless cases.

DN: It’s very charming, but isn’t there something a little meretricious about it. Take Joseph of Cupertino for example: yes of course one understands that young people are terribly anxious about exams… But I don’t think that some old dead person is going to be able to whisper to God and say, “Ah, look, go on…”

SMcR: Put a word in for you.

DN: Yes, and it’s not even fair.

SMcR: And you could even argue, Fr Fergus, that it goes beyond being even ‘unfair’, that there is something self-serving about this, if Mary [Kennedy] wants her keys found, if so-and-so wants to pass an exam, we’ve gone away from the notion of honouring saints to getting the saints to work for us.

FO’D: No, I don’t think we have at all gone away from honouring them. First of all, there is the very important aspect of the different parts of the Church – there is the Church suffering, the Church struggling, and the Church triumphant (that’s the Church in heaven) – and that those who have gone before us are not just cut off and gone. Then there is the issue which was summed up very well on the statues which were put up for the millennium on the west front of Westminster Abbey where they put representatives of the martyrs from every branch of Christianity for the 20st century, people like St Elizabeth of Russia, who was a grand-duchess murdered by the Bolsheviks, she was a widowed nun, there was Oscar Romero, there was Edith Stein, Jewish Carmelite, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, who was murdered by Idi Amin for standing by his principles, and many other people. This is an example of the family of the faith and of people who are absolutely relevant, because the 20th century was, more than any other time, when most Christians were martyred.

DN: Was it the Abbey or the Cathedral?

FO’D: The Abbey.

DN: Well, I’m very glad to hear that, because it should be ecumenical…

SMcR: Let’s look at the notion of saints as role-models or examples. Very often we tend to look on role-models as slightly extreme. We’ll never be quite as good as them, but if we can be somewhere in along those lines… Go back even to what Mary said about the notion of female saints, and to how females in this country might have a particular devotion to St Bridget, or some would say even to the Mother of God, who has, maybe a greater collection of fans than the man himself. But the troubling thing about the women is: we have the impression, I don’t know if it’s true or false, that very often the woman has to be celibate, has to be virginal, maybe an awful lot that women cannot aspire to. Men, perhaps you could argue as well, are meant to be all these things to be saints. Is that true?

FO’D: I think the question is well put, but I’m not sure that the answer is exactly the one that you might like, where I would say, “Yes, absolutely”. Saints are made because there is devotion to them. It may be that there is devotion to them in a particular area, in a particular religious order, it may be that there is very widespread devotion – the example is given, say, of John XXIII, who is now beatified (his shrine is in St Peter’s, upstairs – John Paul is buried when John used to be, in the crypt). But the reality is that when we canonise a saint, we’re saying that this man or this woman had qualities which are admirable, but we are not saying that this was not a human being, that this person is superhuman. The problem which we do have with canonising so many people from religious orders is…because the mechanism as it is, as Mary has mentioned, which dates from 1983, is so complicated that in most cases only a religious order or a diocese has the organisational ability to put it through.

DN: I’m sorry, but we are saying they are supernatural, of course we are. If you’re saying that we can pray to them and they’ll do things for us, and they can storm heaven, they can get us to pass our exams, they can cure toothache, cancer, neuralgia, whatever it is, then they are obviously super-natural, super-normal…

SMcR: Can they be super-normal but flawed, because I think Fergus is suggesting that…

FO’D: Oh, they are flawed. Saints are human, they must be flawed.

DN: I really don’t think… For me at least it’s not appropriate to pray to saints. I don’t approve of that, no.

SMcR: Fergus, can I just ask you, on a very practical note… Quick question: married saints? Are there many?

FO’D: There are. Not a great many, partly because sainthood depends on devotion, and what we’re talking about here in a little too concentrated a manner is canonisation. It starts with beatification, and that often starts with local devotion. So we’re saying that there’s a devotion to a person and why? It’s because this man or this woman has inspired people, has helped them in life. And then there is a conviction, as those of us who have experienced bereavement know, that those who have gone before us are still connected to us. The relationship continues.

SMcR: There’s got to be a miracle for a saint to be…

FO’D: And that is what I don’t agree with, in fact. I think it should be on the person’s own qualities and the devotion to them, rather than on miracles.

SMcR: It does bring in that sort of superhuman thing…

FO’D: It does. And that could be dropped.

FO’D: Let’s look outside Catholicism at this for a moment. Somebody whom I would certainly canonise if I could is Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran, because he has done so much for religion. Somebody who was extremely holy, although he hated Catholics, was John Welsey, founder of Methodism

DN: Did he hate Catholics?

FO’D: Yes. He even wrote an anti-Catholic catechism, but he is just amazing. There is someone like Gladys Aylward, whom Ingrid Bergman played in Inn of the Sixth Happiness, an English Protestant missionary, very simple background, did great work in China,…

DN: What about Raoul Wallenberg, who saved so many Jews…

FO’D: Yes. Lutheran.

DN: What about the Dalai Lama, as a kind of living saint, and look what’s happened to him.

SMcR: Must you suffer to be a saint?

FO’D: No, not suffer physically, but what you do to be a saint, whether you ever come near to being canonised or not, is cope well with the situation in which you find yourself. But also – and this is very important – move yourself from the centre of your own concerns, and that’s what’s so hard.

SMcR: Don’t so many people do that? Don’t mothers and fathers do that all the time. How many sit looking at sick children saying, “If only I could take this from them onto myself!”

FO’D: That’s right. And that done over a lifetime, done in fits and starts, that’s what holiness is. Let’s not get too hung up on the word ‘saint’. Holiness is what we’re talking about, and every Christian is invited to holiness.

SMcR: Fergus, I know that you are saying ‘Let’s not talk about the strict dictionary definition of what a saint is, let’s talk about holiness instead’. In doing that, you have got to break down the old Catholic barrier. There are good people everywhere, you’ve mentioned them yourself. You’d love to take some people in from outside the Catholic fold and make them saints.

FO’D: Yes, absolutely, but they don’t actually need canonisation as a formal process to be recognised as holy.

SMcR: No, but the Catholic Church does like to keep those barriers there and keep its saints within.

FO’D: No, I don’t think so. The English Protestant – very Protestant – historian A.G. Dickens, writing about the Catholic Reformation forty years ago, said: “The Catholic saints of this period, like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Vincent de Paul, are far too good to remain the exclusive property of the tradition which bore them”. And I think that that can be applied to holy people from other denominations as well.