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When it comes to saints, how do you spot the right stuff?

There exists a whole battery of clichés to the effect that the victors write the history, that whoever writes the history in turn rules the roost, and so on.

The very fact that this country still needs a Black History Month indicates our social reality is still askew, the story not yet fully and truly told. And what is true of black history is equally true in the case of other minorities.

Only now, after decades of cover-up, is the awful 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Okla., being treated to the light of day. It left about 300 people, mostly African-Americans, dead.

Similarly, Jason Berry’s story of the Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana indicates how reluctant many Americans still are to confront the dark specter of slavery (see story).

Another cliché warns that if we ignore the past we will surely repeat it. It’s never an exact repeat, which is why smart people such as ourselves go on blundering.

For the most part the poets in this week’s poetry page choose not to write under their full names. All are, or have been at one time, both homeless and students in a poetry workshop held at the Clergy Coalition Shelter for the Homeless in Hoboken, N.J. Their poems, which often blur the distinction between poetry and prose, the personal and the political, are proof of the group’s vitality and refusal to cave in to adversity.

Their instructor, Amanda Gardner, says the workshop gives “hope and sometimes helps [students] move on to find homes and jobs. But this is not our explicit goal. Our goal is simply to provide a regular haven where workshop participants can experience the joys of living, writing and sharing with others.”

Of her experience with the group, which has been meeting for the past five years, Gardner says, “I have been completely transformed by the workshop, by the sense of community it has given and by the confidence and sense of place it has lent me.”

Nobody ever asks my opinion on this but I’m going to give it anyway. I think a lot of the wrong people are getting canonized. I won’t even mention some of the more dubious cases, but I’m wondering if even the great Pope John XXIII had the right stuff. This is no reflection on his sanctity or even on his papacy. But it raises the question whether, had he not been elected pope, he would be well enough known to get prayed to, and hence whether he would have the necessary miracle to his credit. The whole matter can get very hypothetical. I know there will be hell to pay for picking on one of the all-time favorites -- and mine, too -- but the canonization process, being a human process, is very fuzzy at the edges. And I think doing it to a pope makes it too predictable and easy, even if not all popes make it.

Martyrs are another matter. It’s true the interpretation of martyrdom can get fuzzy too, depending especially on how freely it’s embraced, but, everything else being equal, dying for the faith should surely give people an inside track.

On March 5, Pope John Paul will beatify 11 Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. In July 1943 they were living in what was then Poland but is now Belarus. Nazi soldiers arrived in the small town of Nowogrodek and arrested 150 men. The nuns, known since then as Sister Stella and Her Ten Companions, told the local pastor that they were willing to be sacrificed to save the lives of the men. In a letter to a nearby convent, Sr. Stella said she prayed: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, let them kill us rather than those who have families.”

The death sentences of the Nowogrodek prisoners were soon revoked, and they went free. On July 31, Sister Stella and Her Ten Companions departed early from evening prayer to answer their summons to report to the German commissar. They were taken to a wooded grove before dawn and shot and buried in a common grave. The pastor narrowly escaped.

They pose humanity a question: What kind of life does one lead to be able, in such circumstances, to make such a prayer?

When their bodies were exhumed in 1945, the body of a 15-year-old boy was also found in the grave; he must have been a witness who got caught. All that is known of the nuns’ final moments is the testimony of a Nowogrodek woman who was forced to have a German officer as a boarder in her home. On the morning of the execution he arrived at the house drunk, repeating over and over, “How they went! How those sisters went to their deaths!”

Yes, I know there’s a lot to be said for those who don’t get martyred and live what spiritual writers call heroic lives nonetheless. It’s just harder to say which of the many such people ought to be canonized.

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-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000