Sister Marie Kevin Tighe answers questions
Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, formerly from the Office of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, answers some questions about the canonization process.
1. Why do we need to have saints legitimized by the Church?
Look at the word need. I don’t think it’s a question of need. I think it is helpful to have saints legitimized by the Church, which is different from need. In the early days, people were just acclaimed by others to be very good, holy people and were given the name saint in an unofficial way out of admiration and acclamation. But by legitimizing it, by having some methodology, it gives more credibility to saying yes, this person’s life has been examined carefully from many different angles and found not to be wanting in goodness and love and compassion.
If we want to use the word “need,” I would say we need saints because we all need inspiration and models, someone to follow, someone to look up to and imitate. It doesn’t mean we all have to do exactly what every single saint ever did. One reason we are alive is to become holy, and that means simply to be like God. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to be little gods. God showed us an example of what it’s like to be human and to be like God by sending Jesus to Earth and being the actual embodiment of God in human form.
The saints are simply living examples who caught the message that Jesus was trying to give. However, I don’t want to discredit the fact that there are saints in every religious denomination. There are Old Testament saints, holy people who lived before the time of Jesus and who understood that the law of God is the law of love and justice and mercy and forgiveness. So we have Old Testament saints and New Testament saints – saints before the time of Christ and saints after the time of Christ.
2. Why do we use intercessors in our prayers to God?
Well, we don’t really need to have an intercessor, but sometimes it’s helpful. The Church has a doctrine called the Communion of Saints, and the word “communion” there doesn’t refer to the Eucharist. It refers to our being connected to each other with our common life of God who lives in each one of us. And because we all belong to one body, the human race, we’re connected. The parallel could be put on the level of the family spirit. You have a very special connection to the people in your own family. The same thing is true for all human beings – we all have a common life.
Because we are closely allied with every other human person, and because some people have shown very strong ways of living a life like God would live it, we ask these people to be our intermediaries. They can speak directly to God, and so can we.
3. How do saints help me in my day-to-day life?
Simply thinking of the way they lived can inspire me to do good things. They can pray for me because we are all part of the same unity. When I talk with little children, I say that praying to saints is like having a friend in high places – someone who can ask for you. It doesn’t mean you can’t go directly to God yourself. Saints are just people who are models.
4. How and why did the canonization process of the Catholic Church start?
The process started because sainthood was kind of getting out of hand. People were throwing the word saint around loosely, so that it was going to lose its meaning. It was sort of like the Church said we have to have some method to this approach so that it doesn’t become trite. It was well after the Middle Ages that the process was formalized. The method studies the writings and teachings and the life and virtues of the person [step one]. And then the second step is to see if the people who pray through the intercession of the saints receive any unusual responses to those prayers [“spiritual intervention”].
5. Why does the canonization process take so long?
The slowness of the process was a function of the slowness of communication. At this point in history — probably within the last 20 years, which is a little snippet of time in 2,000 years – it has become a more rapid process because of communication and transportation improving. Information can be passed back and forth so much more quickly.
6. Does a person have to be deceased for a certain number of years before a cause can be initiated?
It used to be a law in the Church that a person had to have been dead for 50 years before the cause could even be presented for consideration. That was true at the time of Mother Theodore. She died in 1856, and her cause was introduced in 1909 – a little more than 50 years. Within the last five years or so, a person has to be dead only five years. It changed because information can be transferred so rapidly. Another reason, for example, if you look at Mother Theodore’s case, because there wasn’t anything like Internet or telephones or television or anything like that, she lived a hidden life in these woods. People generally didn’t know about her. Now if you take the case of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, before she even died, the whole world knew what she was doing.
Another reason for the 50-year rule back then was that if nobody was still talking about her 50 years later, probably there wasn’t anything that unusual. But the fact of the matter was, they were still talking about Mother Theodore even though the word wasn’t getting around very fast, people were still talking about her.
7. Why do you think Pope John Paul II canonized so many more people than popes before him?
I really think he had the message that all of us are called to holiness of life. Holiness means living a life of love, truth and justice.
In the Second Vatican Council “Document on the Church” – there were 16 documents that came out of that council – chapter five is titled “The Universal Call to Holiness.” Now, I think that was a very key chapter. It was saying everybody is called to holiness and not just a few people – everybody is called to holiness. That’s why God created us. We are the creatures of God, the children of God, and we ought to want to be like God.
8. What are relics, and why are they important in the canonization process?
There are different classes of relics. A relic is something sacred related to the holy person. If it’s actually part of the person’s body – like hair or bone – that’s called a first-class relic. If it is something that the person used – like a piece of clothing – that’s a second-class relic. If it is something that touched the person, that’s a third-class relic. The only thing the Sisters of Providence give out are third-class relics – a small piece of linen that has been touched to the bone of Mother Theodore. These are not magic pieces, lucky charms or anything like that. They are mementos – something that reminds you of the holy person.
We stress that the relic doesn’t have any power in and of itself. It is a reminder that helps me to be devoted to the person. Sometimes there have been cures when a person simply touched a relic of a holy person. I guess it’s God’s way of saying, “This person is close to me.” We don’t think the saints work miracles. We believe that it’s through the prayers of the saints that miracles happen, because a miracle is the setting aside of the normal laws of nature. Probably more miracles occur than we’re even aware of.
9. Why is the corpse exhumed? Do the remains have to be incorrupt to proceed in the process?
It’s done just to see if there is any unusual phenomenon. I do not believe that there is any regulation in the whole process that the body needs to be exhumed. And the remains do not have to be incorrupt in order to proceed with the process.
When Bishop Chatard found out that Mother Theodore’s brain was perfectly intact – as if it had just been removed from the human body – after having been buried for 51 years, he said he wanted three doctors to examine the brain, and one should not be a Catholic. [Mother Theodore’s remains were transferred from the Congregation’s Cemetery to a vault in the crypt of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1907. At that time, it was discovered that Mother Theodore’s brain was preserved.] The doctor who wrote the description of it gave the size, the weight, the color, the texture and said, “This is a highly unusual phenomenon. The brain is the most delicate tissue in the human body and normally disintegrates within six hours after death.”
What mattered was, it was looked upon as a phenomenon as the doctor said. I think a phenomenon like that is an indication that there’s something unusual about this person’s life.
10. If you were asked to succinctly describe the entire canonization process, how would you describe it?
It is very thorough. It is sometimes exhausting. But it is a privileged task. I believe that Mother Theodore is in heaven and has been from the moment she died. So personally, I don’t need to have the Church proclaim her a saint; but the value for me in it is that her life is made known universally.