Religion: The Long Road to Sainthood

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These days it is still an arduous one, but less "miraculous"

In the solemn splendor of St. Peter's in Rome, 500 North American Indians last week knelt and prayed during a pontifical Mass, along with 25,000 worshipers from around the world. The men's fan-shaped, feathered headdresses and bright sashes, the women's sequined gowns and colored headbands mingled with the scarlet robes of cardinals and the purple of bishops under the dome of the basilica. The Indians, representing 35 tribes from ten states and Canada, came bearing gifts for Pope John Paul II, including a peace pipe and beaded leather moccasins. But the purpose of their visit to Rome was to celebrate the beatification of Kateri Tekakwitha, the "Lily of the Mohawks," a 17th century Indian woman who converted to Christianity and clung to her faith resolutely, despite tribal torments, until her death in 1680.

Kateri Tekakwitha was one of five candidates, two women and three men, to be beatified, or declared "blessed," during the Mass, the last step before full sainthood. Like Kateri, the other four all lived more than three centuries ago. They were missionaries who brought the Christian faith to the people of Brazil, Guatemala and Canada. Kateri is the first American Indian as well as the first American layperson to be beatified.*

At present about 1,000 men and women are being considered for eventual canonization, including nine Americans who are awaiting beatification. There are now more than 2,500 saints, venerated because it is believed that their heroic Christianity and the example of their lives and deaths are worthy of emulation, and because they are believed to be able to intercede with God to work miracles in response to prayer. Many saints were created during the centuries when Christians were persecuted by Rome, a time when all martyrs were considered saints—along with the Apostles and early church fathers like St. Augustine and St. Jerome. The often embroidered stories of their lives—and deaths—were marked by such extraordinary courage shown and cruelty suffered that books like Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend became bestsellers in medieval Europe. Each saint, often according to the manner of his or her martyrdom, became a patron for a special group. The most grotesquely appropriate, perhaps, is St. Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks and restaurateurs, who, so legend says, was grilled to death over a slow fire in A.D. 258. St. Lawrence is said to have mocked his tormentors by saying, "My flesh is well cooked on one side. Turn the other and eat."

Until the 10th century, saints were created by popular acclaim or by bishops in response to local adulation. The first papal canonization was performed in A.D. 993. Even today the road to beatification and eventual sainthood is likely to have begun with some act of piety or miracle believed in by local people. Since the late 16th century, canonization has evolved into an arduous process that in some ways resembles a legal proceeding more than a spiritual exercise.

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