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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Michael W. Higgins
House of Anansi Press, 256 pages, $29.95
In the company of saints

Reviewed by WENDY WRIGHT

Saints are in these days. The pastel saints of holy cards or 1950s church art with palms pressed in prayer and soulful eyes turned heavenward in devotion have come back in vogue. And recent scholars, especially those with an inclination for things medieval or early modern, have had a heyday with quaint tales of peregrinating hermits and hagiographic accounts of holy females such as Hildegard of Bingen.

Certainly the late pontiff, John Paul II, with his sense of saint-making as both pedagogy and public theater, who canonized or beatified more than 200 holy ones, is in part responsible for bringing holy men and women and the process by which they are officially recognized to public consciousness. But it is not Vatican-watchers alone who are caught up in the trend.

Take, for example, the wide popularity of Robert Ellsberg’s newer books -- All Saints, a 365-day daily dose of cross-cultural and ecumenical larger-than-life figures, and his The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, which culls the annals of sanctity for sage advice about living.

Michael Higgins’ Stalking the Holy rides on the waves of this general enthusiasm. Dr. Higgins, a noted Thomas Merton scholar and media commentator, admits he is one of the saint enthusiasts and sets out to explore with his readers just “what is in them that holds so many of us in their thrall.” Dr. Higgins is an engaging writer with a flair for a memorably turned phrase and the ability to capture the fully textured complexity of a personality or an era in a brief sentence or two.

Unlike Kenneth Woodward’s 1990 Making Saints, which detailed the historical and contemporary process of canonization or Lawrence Cunningham’s earlier The Meaning of Saints, which probed literature to extract the essence of contemporary sanctity, the focus of Stalking the Holy is on the controversies over saints causes brought up in recent years: the Italian stigmatic Padre Pio, often seen as a throwback to the holiness of an earlier incredulous age; the mostly adulated, sometimes vilified Mother Teresa of the Calcutta slums; and Pius XII, the World War II pope whom many fault for his alleged failure to confront the Holocaust. All these merit a chapter describing the firestorms hovering over their canonizations.

Threaded through the lively narrative are glimpses of controversies over other notable figures: Edith Stein, the philosopher convert and Carmelite nun whose recognition as a martyr was decried by some Jewish leaders who observed that she was murdered for her Jewish origins, not for her Christian faith; Gianna Beretta Molla, the Italian wife and mother who, in some folks’ eyes, should have been beatified for her entire life of heroic service instead of for the single act of refusing to terminate a dangerous pregnancy and thus dying and becoming the pro-life poster child; the possible fast-tracking of the cause for John Paul II, the saint-maker himself.

As these causes are laid out by Dr. Higgins, the promoters and detractors are all given their time to weigh in on the merits or demerits of the saintly choice. It is somewhat disconcerting that he gives them so much time. In an approximately 250-page tome, there are over 100 quotations, often of a half or full-page length.

It is not altogether clear at the book’s conclusion that Dr. Higgins has, in fact, answered his own question about why we are kept in thrall by these holy ones. Nevertheless, he has shown how differing Catholic groups, interests and perspectives all vie to write the script for the public theater that is the canonization process. Moreover, he has royally entertained us with his colorful prose and his artful juxtaposition of varied voices. That is, if we don’t tire of the sometimes wearying narratives of ecclesial discord. Saints are in now, and Michael Higgins’ take on the fascination we share is worth considering.

Wendy M. Wright is an associate professor of theology and coordinator of the Catholic Imagination Project at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. She is author of Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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