Mortimer Adler once told the story of a Great Books seminar about Dantes
Paradiso in which Robert Hutchins described the saints in heaven
as entranced by beatific vision. "Is that all they do all day long
is just look at God?" a leader from the business world asked. "Yes,"
answered Hutchins, "thats what they do." "I regard
that as un-American," objected the business leader.
If that businessman were correct, then "American saint" would
be a contradiction in terms. For saintsAmerican or otherwiseare
those who "see God face-to-face" in the beatific vision. If
theres a contradiction between that and "being Americans,"
then "being Americans" must have taken a back seat in the saints
case. Then too the objection could be taken as a faint echo of the old
anti-Catholic bromide that the Church of Rome, including its cult of the
saints, is fundamentally and inherently contrary to the American way of
life. "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," on this view, extends to
would-be "American" Catholic saints as much as to the not-so-saintly
would-be "American" Catholics.
But "it aint so." Being a Catholic isnt un-American,
so being fully Catholicbeing a saintisnt either. America
is what her people make of her. American saints have both drawn from and
added to the stock of American life. They have benefited from the noble
American vision of fundamental human equality and opportunity for all,
even as they have worked tirelessly to make that vision a reality in the
lives of ordinary people and their institutions. In short, they were Real
There isor should bea give-and-take between lived Christianity
and the culture in which it is lived. This is what theologians call inculturation,
a greatly misunderstood term in the post-conciliar era, to be sure. Inculturation
is a fancy way of saying that the Gospel both expresses itself through
authentic human culture and draws unto itself elements of that culture
so that the Church may carry on the mission of the Christ in history.
Genuine inculturation avoids "selling out" to the culture (or
the world) on the one hand and isolating ones expression of Christianity
from everything around it on the other. American saints are models of
authentic inculturation, immersed in the American world, yet not of it.
The Saintly Contribution
An outstanding example of the authentic interplay between a saintly living
of the Catholic faith and American culture is St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955),
sometimes called the "millionaire nun." Born into the family
of a prominent Philadelphia banker, Francis Drexel, Katharine Drexel didnt
have to search for the American dream: she had only to inherit it. Yet
unlike many wealthy Protestants, Katharine Drexel was not satisfied with
philanthropy, as generous an expression of charity that that might have
been. On a visit to Pope Leo XIII in 1883, she asked how Indians and "colored
people" could be helped. "Why dont you become a missionary?"
was the Popes answer. In other words, not "Why dont you
give money to the missions?" (which she had already done), but "Why
dont you give yourself?"
Katharine Drexel did. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh and
a few years later founded her own order. Some $20 million of her fathers
estate was used to establish missions to provide for the education of
Indians and blacks in whose service St. Katharine established the Sisters
of the Blessed Sacrament. She also founded some 49 convents and 62 schools.
In 1915, she founded a co-educational high school in New Orleans for blacks.
Ten years later, it became Xavier University, the only historically black
Catholic college in the United States.
The Woman Who Always Prays
Then there is St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who left her mark on America
and the Church in America a few years before Katharine Drexel was born.
Like Drexel, Duchesne was born into wealth and political influence. Unlike
her Philadelphia-born sister in religion, Philippine Duchesne was an immigrant,
as were most early Catholic leaders in America. Put bluntly, she and her
sisters were convent, orphanage, and school-founding missionary machines.
Her story began in Grenoble, France, in 1769. An inquisitive child, she
was intrigued by tales of the Indians told by Jesuit missionaries who
visited her home. She also had an early passion for the poor, which would
flower into vibrant love for those in need. Her mother was devout, but
her father was something of a "freethinker," which accounts
for why he wanted his pious daughter to marry and even selected a prospective
husband to whom to betroth her. He staunchly opposed her decision to join
the Visitation Order in 1788, but join she nevertheless did, refusing
to leave the convent upon a visit. With the onslaught of the Revolution,
the issue was moot; she couldnt make her profession and had to return
She continued to live a religious life despite the outlawing of religious
orders in France. She joined a movement of women religious called the
Ladies of Mercy, who ministered to poor, sick and dying people. After
the Revolution, she tried to reclaim the Visitation convent, but wound
up turning it over to St. Madeleine Sophia Barat, foundress of the Society
of the Sacred Heart. Philippine joined the order.
In stepped Bishop William Du Bourg of New Orleans, who needed nuns for
his vast Louisiana diocese. Philippine Duchesne arrived in the United
States in 1818 and was sent, with four of her nuns, to St. Charles, Missouri,
just northwest of St. Louis. Immediately, she and the other sisters got
down to business. They opened a school, built a convent in nearby Florissant,
an orphanage, parish school, an Indian school, a boarding academy and,
to keep a steady flow of young blood, a novitiate for the order. But she
wasnt content to let only St. Charles and Florissant reap the fruits
of the sisters labors. For good measure, she also founded a convent,
orphanage and parish school in St. Louis.
Often the story of the American founding is told in terms of frontiersmen
and rags-to-riches industrialists, whose drive to succeed supposedly built
the nation from the ground up. Yet, in her own way, Philippine Duchesne
was similarly driven. Not for material success or empire-building; her
passion was Jesus Christ and those for whom he died. The only empire she
knew was the Kingdom of God, the seed of which she and other missionaries
planted on the frontier of the burgeoning United States. Hers was a riches-to-rags
story; her "industry," storing up treasure in heaven.
At age 72, Philippine Duchesne opened a school for the Potowatamu Indians
in Sugar Creek, Kansas. She could hardly speak English when she thrust
herself in a situation to learn a completely different tongue. She never
did, but the impact of her saintly example penetrated the language barrier.
The Indians she served called her "the woman who always prays."
She moved back to St. Charles a year later due to the frailty of age.
She died ten years later, in 1852, and today her body is enshrined in
a marble tomb in there.
Catholics Without a Clue
To turn autobiographical for a moment, Philippine Duchesne reminds me
of how so many Catholics are, to use the slang expression, clueless when
it comes to the impact of the Catholic Church on what are often taken
as things quintessentially American. Growing up in South St. Louis, Missouri,
I often heard the name Duchesnethere was (and still is) a Catholic
girls prep school named Villa Duchesne. As a young man, I knew nothing
about the great woman after whom it was named. She might just as well
have been George Washingtons French aunt, for all I knew. Perhaps
I can be excused because I grew up as a non-Catholic. But what of Catholics?
Many of my Catholic friends knew as little as I did about what we owed
to so many Catholic missionaries, clergymen and saints.
A case in point. My wife Debbie, who is decidedly not a clueless Catholic,
attended Bishop Du Bourg High School in St. Louis. We met at a prayer
group formed by graduates and students of the high school. On one occasion,
friends who had become Evangelical Protestants showed up to attack the
emblems of their Catholic upbringing, including the schools namesake,
Bishop Du Bourg. My future wife gave the erstwhile Catholics what-for:
"If it werent for great Catholic leaders such as Bishop Du
Bourg, you wouldnt even be here right now!" She was right,
of course, but few present saw the point. They were living proof of Christopher
Dawsons observation that Christians ignorant of history are like
amnesiacs. (Update that: theyre like spiritual Alzheimers
disease sufferers; theyve completely lost touch with their religious
Even so, in South St. Louis, you cant avoid at least hearing of
the monuments marking the profound Catholic contribution to America. Those
Catholic names were everywhere. Marquette, Du Bourg, Rosati, Kenrick,
Glennon-the city itself was named after a Catholic saint, Louis IX. (But
dont tell the ACLU; theyll want to change it.) In fact, the
city is so shaped by its Catholic history that its still common
for realtors in South St. Louis, including non-Catholic ones, to identify
neighborhoods by the Catholic parish in which theyre located.
The situation is similar elsewhere in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Catholicism is, well, ubiquitous there, even though many Catholics dont
notice it. Maybe its the fish-in-the-water phenomenon. In any case,
few Catholics and almost no non-Catholics realize the influence the Catholic
Church has had in shaping their experience of America. And the American
saints had been the engines of that influence.
The American Contribution to the Saints
But America has also shaped her saints. Not in the sense of updating or
correcting their faith as Catholics, as perhaps many Catholics today might
want, but by bringing out emphases latent in the faith or providing opportunities
that allowed and even pushed American saints to achieve great things.
America has helped set her saints agenda. If the ancient Roman road
system can be credited as an earthly instrument by which Providence aided
the Church in spreading her message, the American society can in many
ways be credited with providentially creating an environment for many
of Americas saints work to prosper.
Consider the vast school system erected by religious-mostly women religious.
People joke about Sister Mary Catechism wielding her knuckle-crushing
ruler, but Catholic sisters have contributed far more to American education
than raps across the knuckles. And that, in many ways, was a result of
the American vision for education. Many of this nations founders
envisioned universal education as a prerequisite for democratic republican
participation in the commonweal. Seizing the opportunity such a fundamental
value created, Catholic saints built grade schools and high schools for
the poor and for ethnic minorities. Great colleges and universities were
founded. Saint-educators such as Elizabeth Ann Seton lived the motto "No
child shall be left behind" long before it was a campaign slogan.
Of course the Church has always been, to a certain degree, in the education
business. (The Catholic Church invented the university, you will recall.)
But nowhere have Catholic educational institutions thrived as well as
in America. Indeed, for many Americans, Catholic education is synonymous
with excellence in schooling.
Similarly, the American emphasis on human equality helped channel Catholic
energies to assist the poor and to work for social justice. To be sure,
that peculiar institution of chattel slavery has left its mark. And Catholics
contributed their share to it. But they have more than made up for it
by their stalwart commitment to equality for all. Those much-touted Catholic
schools were often schools for blacks and Indians, not to mention for
immigrants. And in those institutions the American ideals of equality,
fairness and opportunity for all have been upheld. It is no fluke that
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a graduate of Catholic schools.
Then there is the immigrant factor. Most of Americas canonized saints
have been immigrants. That shouldnt surprise us, given American
Catholic history. But we should pause to consider how, in a certain respect,
American Catholicisms largely immigrant origins fit well with the
American paradigm. The Jamestown and Plymouth stories are really variations
on the Exodus theme, a point not lost on the original Puritan founders,
who saw themselves as Gods people, putting down roots in a new Promised
Land. Both the early Maryland Catholic settlers and the Catholic immigrants
followed that same route. And their saints were spiritual pioneers, settling
and spiritually taming the land, and setting up shop within it. These
saints had a natural affinity for the immigrant outsider because, in many
respects, they were immigrant outsiders themselves.
Another example of saintly figures influenced by America is Fulton J.
Sheen, whose cause for canonization has recently been taken up. Sheen
is considered elsewhere in this issue but he must also be mentioned here.
One thing to note about him at the outset is the way his idea of evangelization
was shaped by American technology. Sheen was one of early radio evangelists
and later, one of the first televangelists. But he managed to avoid the
bitter sectarianism and moral turpitude of some TV preachers who came
Sheen was a superb teacher and convert-maker. That his TV show was at
one time more popular than his competition Milton Berle shouldnt
surprise us. Sheen was a master of the medium. In many respects, he was
a one-man public relations campaign for the Catholic Church in America.
He made it his business to use all the means at his disposal to show the
real Catholic Church to Protestant and Jewish America. He once said that
there werent a hundred people who hated the Catholic Church but
that there were millions who hated what they mistakenly thought was the
Catholic Church. For many of those millions, Sheen helped set the record
He was a staunch proponent of democracy, properly understood; a militant
anti-Communist but also an outspoken advocate of social justice, the cause
of the poor and the rights of workers. Even so, his presentation of Catholic
social teaching in no way detracted from other aspects of Catholicism.
When Sheen was reaching millions through his television program, the vogue
had not yet emerged among Catholics to pit the Second Great Commandment
("Love your neighbor as yourself") against the First Great Commandment
("Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength").
Years later, after it had, he denounced it fiercely as a false dichotomy.
He spent an hour a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, which he regarded
as the source of his eloquence. He taught lucidly about the Trinity, the
Incarnation, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Church
as the Mystical Body of Christ, the sacramental life, the Last Thingsthe
whole panoply of Catholic doctrineto people who would otherwise
not have had a clue. And he was just as articulate, even if not as passionate,
about democracy, the evils of fascism, psychology and the mores of the
day. There was for Sheen no separation between the Faith and daily life
in this worlda division Vatican II denounced as one of the greatest
evils of our time. Whether or not Archbishop Sheen will finally be canonized,
he certainly manifested the marks of an American saint: a passion for
holiness and an unstoppable drive to marshal the blessings of America
in service to the Gospel.
Of course, when it comes to American saints, weve only skimmed the
play list. We could also consider the multilingual St. John Neumann of
Philadelphia (1811-1851), a Bohemian immigrant, who, among other things,
founded the first national parish for Italians, set up the first diocesan
schedule for perpetual Forty-Hours devotion, erected the first diocesan
school system and, in general, set a high standard of sanctity and humility
for American bishops. Visiting Germany, Bishop Neumann returned from an
outing utterly drenched from the rain. His host asked if he would like
to change his shoes, to which Bishop Neumann replied that the only way
he could change shoes would be to put his left shoe on his right foot
and right shoe on his left foot. "These are the only shoes I own,"
Nor have we considered American saints in the broader sense of those who
brought Christianity to the Americas or American saints outside of North
America or the United States. Junipero Serra, the man who founded California;
St. Isaac Jogues; St. Rose of Lima; Kateri Tekakwitha and many more, all
populate the greater roster of American saints.
The list is finite, of course, but still too long to exhaust here. The
point is, veneration and admiration should lead imitation. It is not enough
to know our Catholic heritage as Americans, as important as that is. Nor
merely to stand, as Catholics, in awe of what the American saints accomplished,
by Gods grace. The Church canonizes the saints not for their sake
but for ours. Which raises a really important question. What shall we
make of their examples?
The Real Point
Fifty years ago, the great American Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis
complained about Catholic Americas intellectual ghetto. By which
he meant, among other things, the lack of first-rate Catholic contributions
to scholarship. Whether or not Ellis was correct about that at the time,
nowadays there is no shortage of "scholarship," at least understood
in the academic sense. Indeed, if the "scholarship" in "Catholic
scholarship" was questionable half a century ago, today the question
mark follows the word "Catholic." Postconciliar confusion has
left many Catholicsincluding at least two popeswondering about
the extent to which Catholicism in America is more "of the world"
than "in it." If the so-called Americanism of the late 19th
century was a "phantom heresy," the Americanism of so many Catholic
dissenters today is alive and well and living in a Catholic institution
Thats why the challenge today isnt scholarship so much as
saintliness. The Church needs good scholars, to be sure, but Jesus never
said, "You must be scholarly as your heavenly Father is scholarly,"
nor "Unless your scholarship surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees
you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." Saintly Catholics and
saintly Catholic families can provide the raw materials to make great
scholars (among other things), but the reverse isnt necessarily
the case. Whatever may be the Churchs need for scholars, there is
a greater, more immediate need that cant be overlooked: the need
American Catholicism is a rich heritage, yet it is also a challenge to
Americas future. What impact will Catholicism have on America of
tomorrow? That depends on our answer to the call to holiness today. Will
we be saintsAmerican saintsand incarnate holiness in our culture?
According to Cardinal Ratzinger, the main problem of our age is a crisis
of saints. "Inculturate" his observation and we can say that
the principle problem of America today is a crisis of American saints.
How that crisis will be resolved depends, in large part, on how we respond
to the call to holiness. The maxim that in the end the only tragedy is
not to have been a saint applies as much to Americans as anyone else.