“I don’t much like the saints,” admitted an eighth grader. “They’re too perfect.” Isn’t it high time our young folk met the real saints, who are just as filled with flaws and quirks as any other human beings? But many of them would’ve been really interesting to hang out with!
We in the U.S. are fortunate to brush elbows with many saints–both officially canonized and not quite there–who grew and flourished here. It’s intriguing to imagine them sitting down together at a heavenly banquet, unbounded by the usual human constraints. Their shared values, hopes, beliefs and actions are strong membranes connecting them beyond time and space.
Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint exchange news about their parish, St. Peter’s in New York City; she thanks him for donations to the orphanage staffed by her sisters. Katharine Drexel and John Neumann chat about their home town, Philadelphia. Marianne Cope, the first to admit alcoholics to the hospital at a time when they were jailed instead, thanks Bill W., Dr. Bob and Sister Mary Ignatia for founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez discuss with Henry David Thoreau his essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” He preferred jail to paying a tax which would finance the Mexican War and extend slavery; his stance on resisting injustice underlay their movements. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and Elizabeth Ann Seton compare notes on their shared experiences of being widowed, converting to Catholicism when it was most unpopular, losing a child, and constantly caring for the sick. Frances Cabrini discusses immigration with contemporary experts and marvels that the issues of her day still have not been resolved. Thea Bowman and Katharine Drexel roll their eyes about black women being denied admission to religious communities in the early 1900s. Sister Mary Luke Tobin and Rachel Carson measure women’s progress in the arenas they pioneered: church and science. Dorothy Day, Helen and Cesar Chavez reminisce about their visits to each other, and her imprisonment in 1973 for picketing several California vineyards. Dorothy Stang and the sisters martyred in Liberia talk with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel about the ties that bound them so closely to their people, they couldn’t leave their missions even when their lives were endangered.
Lest anyone consider them superheroes, let’s remember that saintly people walk with all the longing and limitation, reluctance and resistance of ordinary human beings. They share (and have documented in their letters and journals) the failures, fears and frustrations, effervescent joys and stinging pains of all humanity. Looking way back in church history, the fifth century Council of Carthage insisted that saints remain sinners who rely on God’s mercy. If not, they’d be too distant to imitate. And isn’t that the point?
A question which arises naturally in this context is, what makes North Americans unique in the larger communion of saints? Typical of our nation’s settlement and growth was a fluidity, vitality, and sense of possibility previously unknown in Europe. Historian Daniel Boorstin comments: “By the early 19th century, in crowded, pre-empted Europe, ‘No Trespassing’ signs were everywhere; control by government covered the map. America offered a sharp contrast.”
Old World nations knew clearly defined boundaries. But the sense of geography in the U.S. was vague at best. “The map of America was full of blank places that had to be filled.” This unique mix of hope and illusion became fertile ground.
Few clucking rulers murmured, “it can’t be done.” Call it, if you will, less of a “wet blanket effect.” Americans often seem happiest when on the move, and this was certainly true of John Frances Neumann or Frances Cabrini—who began as immigrants, and served their new country by difficult journeys through it.
The frontier has always been vital to the North American experience. So let’s broaden the idea of frontier to unexplored realms of holiness. In the North American context, the quote from Revelation 21:5, “See, I am making all things new” takes on richer meaning. Our saints went into what some would term North America’s “hell holes”: the raw frontier, the leper colony, the squalid slum. They were “explorers” in many realms: civil rights, science, education, health care. There they brought the vigorous, transforming energy of the Resurrection.
Shouldn’t our young people have heroes like Marianne Cope, Pierre Toussaint, John Neumann, Dorothy Stang, Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez and Mychal Judge? Don’t these pioneers have more to teach the soul than a sports or film hero? Let’s read their stories, model their actions, praise them like honored family members!
Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450
 Daniel Boorstin, THE AMERICANS: THE NATIONAL EXPERIENCE (New York: Random House, ’65), 65.
 Boorstin, 223