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Models of holiness and married life


Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on marriage as a path to holiness came under the spotlight when he recently beatified an Italian couple, the first couple in history to be elevated together to the rank of “blessed.”

In bestowing the status on Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi in October, the pope held them up as models of married Catholics who “lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.”

Luigi and Maria, who died in 1951 and 1965 respectively, were married for 46 years and had four children, three of whom entered religious life. Their fourth child never married.

John Paul II has long desired to honor a married couple and was reportedly delighted with the Quattrocchis’ beatification.

For all that it might say about the changing status of laity in the church, this unique beatification also raises questions about the relationship between marriage and the process of canonization. Given that the church teaches marriage is a sacrament, why are couples so rarely considered for the church’s canon of saints? What is it about the married state that poses obstacles to sanctification — or makes it possible?

Linked to those questions are criticisms that the pope’s choice of the Quattrocchis fails to offer a compelling example of married life and does little to elevate the status of marriage within the church.

The Quattrocchis’ biographers describe a modern Catholic couple in charge of an active, noisy household while actively engaged in the world around them. Luigi, born in southern Italy in 1880, was a lawyer who worked for the Italian government and bank. He was an active participant in several Catholic organizations.

Maria, fluent in French and English, read extensively and wrote books on the mother’s role in education of her children. She also comforted sick people during World War I, studied nursing and accompanied invalids on pilgrimages to Lourdes. The family had a daily devotion to the Eucharist and the Rosary. Maria made a heroic decision not to abort her fourth child.

“They made their family a true domestic church open to life, to prayer, to the witness of the gospel, to the social apostolate, to solidarity with the poor and to friendship,” Cardinal José Saraiva Martins said when the Vatican cleared the way for the couple’s beatification last July.

Some critics have wondered, though, whether the Quattrocchis were beatified less because they were ordinary examples of holiness than because they produced three children who entered religious life, or because they gave up sexual relations and lived more than half their married life as “brother and sister.”

A miracle — the prerequisite to any beatification — is attributed to the couple. It involves the cure of a young man suffering from a severe circulatory disorder. He is now a 35-year-old neurosurgeon in Milan.

Beatification is the final precursor to canonization. The Quattrocchis need one more miracle to be declared saints and thus available for universal veneration.

“Today the aspiration of the [Second Vatican] Council is fulfilled with the first beatification of a married couple,” John Paul said in his homily for the Mass of Beatification. “Their fidelity to the gospel and their heroic virtues were verified in their life as spouses and parents.”

‘Two-tiered sanctity’

Until quite recently, the church viewed religious life as a higher calling than the married state. Many say the scarcity of married saints is partly due to this old idea of “two-tiered sanctity.”

“I think in general, there are very few ordinary Catholics who are beatified,” said Bernard Cooke, Loyola professor of theology emeritus from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Prior to Vatican II, the choice of religious life was considered “more superior” than marriage, and even today, Cooke argues, “there is a presumption that the level of sanctity [between the two vocations] is not comparable.”

Kenneth Woodward, senior writer for Newsweek magazine, documents this underrepresentation of laity in his book Making Saints (Simon & Schuster, 1990), an exploration of the canonization process in the Catholic church.

Of the 303 canonizations that occurred between the year 1000 and the end of 1987, only 56 honored laymen and 20 honored laywomen. “Moreover, of the 63 lay saints whose state of life is known for certain,” he wrote, “more than half never married. And most of these lay saints were martyred, either individually or as members of a group.”

Conscious of Catholicism’s cleric-laden canon, John Paul II, in 1992, asked his saint-making congregation to turn its attention to the cause of laypeople and married couples in particular. The pope described Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi as “living proof of what the Second Vatican Council said about the call of all the faithful to holiness.” They are the 1,273rd and 1,274th Catholics to be beatified in the 23 years of John Paul’s tenure.

“Pope John Paul II sees canonization as an instrument of evangelization,” said Notre Dame theologian Lawrence Cunningham. “He has a penchant for bringing to the fore those whose lives are emblematic of certain values he wishes to put forward.” The pontiff “has traditional views on the sanctity of marriage,” Cunningham added, “and he wants to hold up as a model of holiness a couple that raised a family and brought some religious vocations into the world.”

But the pope has also chosen a couple who is accessible to modern-day devotees, said Joanne Pierce associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. Unlike Priscilla and Aquila, the canonized couple from the days of St. Paul, or the parents of 19th-century St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis and Azelie Martin, recently under consideration for beatification, the Quattrocchis are people “we can recognize as contemporaries” facing contemporary problems like global war and abortion, Pierce said.

Initially supporters of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the couple later rejected fascism. They harbored resistance fighters and Jews in their home in Rome, sometimes lending their priest sons’ vestments to help partisans escape from Nazi occupiers.

When doctors warned Maria that she would almost surely die if she carried a fourth child to term, she rejected their advice to have an abortion. She lived 50 years beyond the dangerous delivery. The baby, now their 87-year-old daughter Enrichetta, attended her parents’ beatification.

Maria did not always welcome pregnancy though. When she suspected she was pregnant with a second child shortly after giving birth to the first, she wrote Luigi to complain. “I’d prefer anything to another pregnancy,” she wrote. “How can I take care of both children in the state I’m in?”

The couple’s son, Trappist Fr. Paolino Quattrocchi, 92, who concelebrated the beatification Mass with the pope, recalled that his parents sometimes exchanged hard words, but mostly treated each other with respect and love. Letters from their courtship were filled with expressions of passionate love along with deep religious commitment.

The couple’s three surviving children said they seemed like ordinary parents. “When it was needed, they gave us punishments, reprimands and sometimes even a good slap,” Fr. Quattrocchi said.

Despite the couple’s apparent accessibility, Jan Arcieri, co-director of Family Life Ministry in Worcester, Mass., and 38 years married, contends the pope’s “modern” example of holiness in marriage still reinforces the church’s age-old view of two-tiered sanctity. Is a couple’s holiness contingent upon their ability to raise priests and nuns? she said.

Arcieri pointed to the recent beatification of eight Catholics, which occurred shortly after the Quattrocchi commemoration. All are priests, nuns or bishops. “It’s discouraging,” she said. “The hidden vocations that are out doing tons of work for the church go unnoticed. Pull away those people from the church, however, and you have no church.”

Canonization process

Saint-making is not exactly family-friendly, and many claim that the process for verifying holiness has effectively excluded married people. For the first thousand years of Christianity, saints and martyrs were recognized by “local acclamation.” Gradually, canonization became more formal and rigorous. Today, a postulator oversees the cause of a particular candidate.

Although Pope John Paul has streamlined the process, the consideration of a candidate still requires the support of a local bishop, an extensive review of the prospective saint’s life for proof of “heroic virtue,” and scrutiny of writings for assurance of orthodox beliefs and teaching. Finally, the Vatican’s seal of approval is needed.

“Married people don’t have the institutional wherewithal to have their cases put forward,” said Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien. “A religious order is an institution that goes on, so that the cause of a religious person can be pushed for centuries if it has to be. But the memory of a married person kind of fades after three or four generations.”

“I know dozens, hundreds, thousands of good married people, but their lives are not such that they would fit into the process for canonization,” said Cunningham. “Who would write the biography for such people?”

In the case of the Quattrocchis, the original postulator for their cause was one son, a priest. When he became too old, the work passed on to a Capuchin in Rome named Fr. Paola Rossi.

Canonization can also be expensive. Fr. Flavio Capucci, postulator for the cause of the founder of Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva, reported that Escriva’s beatification cost $150,000 plus an additional $500,000 for the 1992 celebration in St. Peter’s Square. If the process moves on to canonization and Escriva is deemed a saint, an event requiring another celebration, the total expenditure for verifying his sanctity will exceed $1 million, Capucci said.

Woodward, however, said it is incorrect to assume canonization is cost prohibitive. There are religious orders eager to find saints and willing to absorb the fees for cash-strapped families.

“There is no way of establishing an ‘average’ cost for saint-making,” he said in a telephone interview. The price can vary according to time spent, the amount of travel required and the volume of material reviewed. “Nobody is making a living off of this.”

Among the few officially recognized married saints, most were widowed and then founded religious orders, said William P. Roberts, professor of theology at Dayton University in Ohio. “I don’t know of any who were canonized because of their marriage. There has always been a bias against marriage. The holiness of marriage, the goodness of sexual intimacy has never been officially recognized as a call to sanctity. Although the pope has made a lot of good statements with regard to marriage, in practice, the bias is still there.”

Ambivalence toward sexuality

Woodward believes this bias can be attributed to Roman Catholicism’s “profound ambivalence toward human sexuality.”

Throughout its history, “the church has placed a higher value on virginity than on marriage, even though marriage has the status of a sacrament while virginity does not,” Woodward wrote in Making Saints. The New Testament and much of the writings of the early church fathers contributed to a “tradition of associating sexuality with sin.”

St. Augustine, for example, taught that “sexual intercourse was the means by which original sin was transmitted from generation to generation.” Influenced by Neo-Platonic thought, the early theologians believed that subduing the body was a prerequisite to liberating the higher life of mind and spirit.

Renunciation of “the world” in general and “the flesh” in particular has always been integral to Christian concepts of sanctity and the church fathers, Woodward wrote. The church fathers were “merely justifying theologically the ascetic practices already evident” among some early Christians.

Now that the church no longer teaches the inferiority of marriage to virginity or consecrated celibacy, “it could put forward saints whose lives embody the virtues of Christian marriage,” Woodward said. Given the prevalence of divorce and infidelity in today’s world, these virtues, he believes, are every bit as “heroic” as the virtues needed to maintain a commitment to celibacy.

Mary Ford, professor of New Testament theology at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, believes the beatification of the Quattrocchis was probably prompted by the declining status of marriage in modern society.

Until recently “marriage was totally valued. You didn’t need a model,” said Ford, who with husband David Ford co-authored the book Marriage as a Path to Holiness. “Today’s situation is quite unusual in historical terms. In the past, the church needed to promote the idea of monasticism. Now, married people need more encouragement.”

For Woodward and many others, though, the Quattrocchis’ beatification strikes a strange note. The couple had an intense courtship and conceived their four children in the first three years of their union. But at the suggestion of their spiritual advisor, Luigi and Maria, ages 46 and 41 respectively, gave up sexual relations after 21 years of marriage.

Woodward is among those who wonder why the church would put forth, as its first example of matrimonial holiness, a couple who lived more than half their life together as celibates. Upholding them is “somewhere between old-fashioned and retrograde as an example of how you become ‘another Christ,’ ” he said. “It seems to display a very much outdated, negative view of sex.”

In the area of marriage as sacred vocation, encouragement is clearly needed. Many married Catholics take a modest view of marriage as a path to sanctity. Faithfully fulfilling the quotidian duties of domestic life probably impedes a person’s chances at sainthood.

“There is only so much energy in a person’s life or day,” said Lavallee, an attendee at a recent training session for teachers of marriage preparation, held in Worcester, Mass. “Let’s say someone wants to be a great surgeon. Chances are they’re not going to have time for their family. If someone wants to be a great saint, they are going to have to make a choice.”

For those with Lavallee’s view, the Quattrocchi beatification could provide a corrective to an either/or notion of sanctity.

But for Dr. John Zawacki, a Catholic from Massachusetts, the holiness inherent in marriage is easily apparent. Married 36 years, a father of three and a grandfather of three, Zawacki described marriage as a rich source of spiritual wealth, a sacrament that has yet “to be fully mined.”

“When we are honestly speaking to one another and listening, we are on special holy ground. As a couple, we can be there as often as we choose,” he said. Zawacki said his relationship with his wife has become a primary place where he experiences God. His vocation, where he believes he fulfills God’s call is lived out in loving her.

He considers the Quattrocchis’ choice for celibacy to be a “contradiction” because the sexual aspect of marriage can be such an important source of “renewal, healing and comfort. If you have that in your marriage, you bring it to others.”

The church, Zawacki admits, has a hard time understanding the goodness of sexual intimacy and remains fearful or suspicious perhaps because of its “potential for harm.”

Nonetheless, Zawacki called the Quattrocchi beatification “wonderful. I’ll leave it to others to debate the nuances of this choice. I’m thankful the church recognized sainthood can be reached as a couple.”

John L. Allen Jr., NCR’s Rome correspondent, and Catholic News Service contributed information for this story.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001