The Doorway to Sainthood


Author: Kathleen Cummings ’99Ph.D.

Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, photo by Steven Scardina

The atmosphere is evocative of a European soccer match. The crowd, estimated at more than 60,000, is comparable, the mood is festive and it is a brilliant October day. People cheer, wave flags and queue in long lines for the bathroom. The heroes of the morning, though, are not futbol players but saints: canonized saints, to be precise. We are in Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, to witness the canonization of four women and two men.

Among them is Brother André Bessette, CSC, the first member of the Congregation of Holy Cross so honored.

At tomorrow’s Mass of Thanksgiving, the Archbishop of Montreal will compare André’s path to sainthood to another athletic event, suggesting that when André was proclaimed “venerable” in 1978 it was akin to his winning a bronze medal; his 1982 beatification qualified him as a silver medalist; now in attaining sainthood, he has won the gold.

It’s a neat metaphor, although, strictly speaking, one has a far greater chance of becoming an Olympic medalist than a canonized saint. More than 600 medals were distributed at last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver; the six saints canonized today will be the only ones designated as such this year.

For me, this trip represents the culmination of a quest to understand both how the Canadian man became a saint and what his canonization means. Last summer, I joined a parish pilgrimage to the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal, where I learned more about André. Born Alfred Bessette in a small village in Quebec in 1845, he was a sickly infant not expected to live long. Orphaned at a young age, he spent his young adult years as an itinerant worker. The Congregation of Holy Cross at first refused him entry because of his frail health, but eventually he was permitted to take vows and he took André as his religious name.

Brother Andre Bessette photo from the Holy Cross Office of Vocations

Since he was uneducated and unskilled, his superiors assigned him to be a porter at the College of Notre Dame in Montreal. He later joked, “When I entered the Congregation, they showed me the door. And I stayed there for 40 years.” André’s reputation for hospitality, and eventually for healing, soon attracted a constant stream of visitors. André listened to each one, assured him or her of his prayers for them, and spoke of his own deep faith in God and in Saint Joseph. Against all odds, he managed to raise funds to help build the magnificent Oratory of Saint Joseph on a large hill across from the college.

As is the custom, I ascended the Oratory’s concrete steps on my knees, asking André to intercede for my intentions. Foremost among them was healing for my friend and fellow parishioner, Suzy Fitzpatrick, whose recent diagnosis of colon cancer prevented her from joining the pilgrimage. With the other pilgrims, I marveled at the notes, crutches, slings and other signs of the reported 125,000 healings attributed to André, known as “The Miracle Man of Montreal.”

Now I have come to Rome, where today’s canonization ceremony reflects both the celebration and the solemnity befitting such a rare event. Tapestries depicting each of the six saints hang from the balcony of Saint Peter’s. Most pilgrims are wearing scarves or medals identifying the saint they have come to support. Others open their program booklet to the page with the picture of their saint and hold it aloft.

Brother André’s fans appear to be in a distinct if enthusiastic minority. The two Italian saints, to be sure, have home-field advantage. But all of us are outmatched, if not in number then in exuberance, by pilgrims from Australia. More than 10,000 of them have traveled across the globe to attend the canonization of Mother Mary MacKillop, their nation’s first canonized saint.

The rite of canonization appears just before the Liturgy of the Word, and includes a recitation of the litany of saints, a reading of the official biographies of each and the pope’s official proclamation of the formula of canonization. Most of the Mass is in Latin, although the rite of canonization and the homily are punctuated by passages spoken in the native languages of each of the candidates — French for André, English for MacKillop, and Spanish, Polish and Italian for the remaining four.

Like André, the other five people canonized today belonged to religious communities. It does not diminish their holiness to say that their causes for canonization were helped substantially by this fact. The modern canonization process, in place since the 16th century, is exacting, exhausting and expensive. Religious congregations can supply the funding, labor and institutional memory it takes to sustain a cause for the decades or even centuries it often requires to see a cause through completion.

As petitioners, the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal appealed to the Archbishop of Montreal to open André’s cause. The archbishop obliged in 1940 and would oversee three concurrent investigations that constituted the diocesan process of a cause for canonization.

First, all of André’s writings were collected for later examination by theologians. Second, diocesan commissions were set up in Montreal and all the other places André had lived to interview witnesses about André’s reputation for holiness. The minutes of this testimony, called the informative process, were transcribed by hand into an almost 5,000-page document. Finally, a diocesan court judged that André had never been publically worshipped. This judgment of non cultus was the only decision rendered by the diocesan court; all other decisions regarding the case were made in Rome, first by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (now called the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints) and, finally, by the pope.

The entire file was hand-delivered to Rome in 1950. It would take another decade for the Sacred Congregation to review this material. Upon their recommendation and with the approval of Pope John XXIII, the apostolic, or Roman, process on André’s cause began in 1960.

The apostolic process on virtues essentially repeated the diocesan informative process but was carried out under the authority of the Holy See rather than by the local ordinary. This involved 148 sessions in which 23 witnesses testified about André’s reputation for holiness. Again, this material was transferred to the Sacred Congregation for review. It was not until 1978 that Pope Paul VI would approve the decree on André’s heroic virtues, assigning him the title of “Venerable.”

Then came the hard part: the apostolic process on miracles, which reviewed alleged miracles attributed to André’s intercession. A miracle is distinct from a favor (i.e. “I prayed to André, and my husband found a new job” or “Thanks to my prayers to André, I did well on the test”) and almost always involves a medically inexplicable cure.

Accounts of miracles are reported to the postulator, a person based in Rome and appointed by the petitioner to prepare documentation for the cause and to present it to the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Those that look promising are subject to a lengthy process which involves gathering detailed testimony from witnesses and an examination by medical experts at the local level and in Rome. If they agree that the cure is impossible to explain medically, a commission of theologians then determines whether the person in question is indeed responsible. If their decision is favorable, the matter goes straight to the pope, who has the final say in all matters related to canonization.

André’s first authenticated miracle involved the case of Joseph Audino, a New York man who was diagnosed with severe liver cancer and healed after his family invoked André’s intercession. An initial diocesan hearing on the cure was held in February 1966, and Pope John Paul II officially attributed it to André on November 27, 1981.

At this point André’s cause benefited from timing. From the 16th century until very recently, candidates for sainthood required two miracles for beatification (except if he or she had died as a martyr, in which case only one was required) and an additional two for canonization. In search of a second miracle, petitioners for André’s cause sent testimony regarding at least 16 possible miracles to Rome in the aftermath of the Audino case. But by this time the Congregation for Causes of the Saints was grappling with theological and practical questions about the complexity of the canonization process.

Miracles came under particular scrutiny. Were they really theologically necessary to prove sainthood, once the virtues were established? Moreover, as modern medical advances reduced the realm of the medically inexplicable, was it even realistic to expect that a sufficient number would make it through such a stringent process?

Inheriting this debate upon his election to the papacy in 1979, John Paul II had his own reasons for wanting change. Committed to canonizing more people from the developing world, where medical experts were often harder to come by, he would eventually reduce the number of required miracles to one for beatification and one for canonization. John Paul II also implemented other changes designed to streamline the canonization process. This helps to explain why he canonized more people (482 canonized, 1,341 beatified) than all of his predecessors combined.

In André’s case, these changes ensured that the Audino miracle was sufficient for the pope to promulgate his decree on beatification, which was made official in a ceremony on May 23, 1982. From that point on he was known as Blessed Brother André. Canonically speaking, beatification is more than simply the penultimate stage on the way to canonization. The decree of beatification extends the right of public veneration to specific groups within the church, either a diocese, country or religious congregation. It is not until a person is canonized that Catholics throughout the universal church have the ability and in fact the duty to venerate that saint publicly.

Thousands of those beatified will remain at this stage permanently, either because the petitioners have lost interest or because no more miracles are forthcoming. Another Canadian candidate for sainthood, Marie of the Incarnation, was beatified in 1980, but her cause has stalled since then. On a recent visit to the Ursuline convent Marie founded in Quebec City, I asked one of the sisters if any miracles attributed to Mother Marie are presently under investigation. She smiled sadly and said, “We think she perhaps has other things on her mind.”

Not so for Blessed Brother André. Reports of his miracles continued, and as before the most promising ones were forwarded to the postulator in Rome. Seven people have served as postulator for André’s cause. The most recent, Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, accepted that role in 2002 when he also became the official postulator for the Congregation of Holy Cross. Ambrosi, a canon lawyer, runs the Ambrosi Law Firm for Causes of Beatification and Canonization in Rome. His firm, located just off the crowded Piazza Navona, employs three full-time staff members, including his English-speaking assistant, Ohio native Madelaine Kuns Bruschini.

When I meet with Ambrosi and Bruschini a day after the canonization, their mood is celebratory, though both admit to fatigue. The festivities of the past weekend have been exhausting, and André’s canonization has come on the heels of their trip to England a month earlier, where Pope Benedict presided over the beatification of John Henry Newman, for whom Ambrosi also serves as postulator.

During my hour-long conversation with Ambrosi I realize that his talent, instinct and experience combine to give his causes a reasonably good chance of success. When I ask him how he identifies a miracle that might go the distance, he rattles off three criteria: a certainty of diagnosis (in that all medical experts agree), an initial prognosis of death (a cure from, say, deafness, may qualify as miraculous but lacks the drama inherent in a resurrection) and proximity of the invocation to the saint and the healing (almost immediate, rather than drawn out over weeks or months).

André’s second authenticated miracle easily met all three criteria. In 1999, a 9-year-old Quebecois boy had suffered severe head trauma in a bicycle accident. Despite a prognosis of certain death, he was cured after his family prayed for André’s intercession. Investigations began into the cure in 2005 and concluded on December 19, 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to promulgate the decree attributing this miracle to André. This paved the way for his October 2010 canonization. The injured boy, now a healthy young adult, is present at the ceremony, though he has preferred to remain anonymous.

Ambrosi is presently working on about 35 active causes for canonization. Among them are a number of other CSC causes, including that of the congregation’s founder, Basil Moreau, whose cause Ambrosi shepherded to beatification in 2007. Moreau is one authenticated miracle away from canonization, and there is a promising one presently undergoing investigation. (At this stage, everything but the location of the alleged miracle, a city in India, is top secret.) Other notable Holy Cross causes include Bishop Vincent McCauley, who worked for years in Uganda, and Rev. Patrick Peyton, whose Family Rosary Crusade drew millions of Catholics to open-air rallies in the 1950s and sparked a TV show.

Yet it is a humble doorkeeper, rather than the founder, the bishop or the media sensation, who has been the first Holy Cross member raised to the altars of the saints. If there ever was a testament to the gospel truth, “He who humbles himself shall be exalted,” this is it. According to Kenneth Woodward ’57, former religion writer for Newsweek and the acknowledged expert on the canonization process, this is not an uncommon pattern in saint-making. The process tends to favor “people who don’t make it by worldly standards. . . . I always tell people, if you want to be canonized, don’t be a cardinal.”

Father Kevin Grove, CSC, ’09M.Div., associate pastor at Christ the King parish in South Bend, Indiana, imparts a great deal of theological significance to this pattern of inversion. Grove, who organized my pilgrimage to the Oratory last summer, sees in André’s canonization a powerful reminder that God can transform our greatest weaknesses into the very stuff of salvation. “God used the life of a man who was too sickly to put in an honest day’s labor in order to be a comfort and solace to hundreds of thousands of sick persons,” says Grove. “God used a man who was functionally illiterate to be a teacher to the masses about how to pray and how to trust in the transformative power of Christ’s passion.”

It’s clear that André’s canonization means a great deal to Grove and his confreres. At a post-canonization luncheon in Rome, Rev. David Tyson, CSC, head of Holy Cross’ Indiana province, describes the day as one that he and most of the men in the room have been waiting for most of their adult lives. Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, president of Notre Dame, has traveled to Rome for the canonization, heading an official University delegation that included Rev. James McDonald, CSC, ’79, associate vice president; Tom Burish, provost; J. Matthew Ashley, chair of the Department of Theology; and Father Tim Lowe, the rector of the Tantur Institute for Ecumenical Studies.

From Rev. Ed Obermiller, CSC, one of Tyson’s assistants, I learn of yet another sign of the momentousness of the occasion, perhaps the most telling considering Italian culture: The restaurant’s owner has unilaterally added a second pasta course to our already elaborate menu. A single pasta course, it seems, would not have done justice to a canonization celebration.

When I asked Father Jenkins what Bessette’s canonization should mean to people at Holy Cross institutions, he expressed his hope that Brother André’s example will inspire “our Notre Dame community to renew our commitment to live holy lives, to welcome all, and to show compassion for those in need.”

One segment of Notre Dame’s community has already realized Jenkins’ hopes. The Center for Social Concerns structured a series of weekend events for members of the ND community in Europe. According to the center’s Rosie McDowell, who is based in Angers, France, where she promotes community-based learning for study-abroad students based in Europe, the highlight of the weekend involved performing service activities in two different sites in Rome on Saturday morning. The Center’s initiative received significant support from Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, and McDowell described the weekend events as “intentionally planned to include prayer, learning, service and reflection to give all an opportunity to more fully understand the significance of Brother André’s canonization and the relevance that the model of his life has for all of us.”

Staff members at Holy Cross Village, a retirement community run by the Brothers of Holy Cross in South Bend, also had André’s work in mind when planning their celebration of his canonization. According to Sister Marilyn Zugish, CSC, director of spiritual care and mission integration, Brother André’s example inspired them to select employees laboring on “the front lines.” One member of each of the village’s five service departments — maintenance, housekeeping, dietary, physical therapy and administrative assistance — was selected by lottery to receive an all-expense paid trip to the canonization.

My trip to Rome was both a spiritual and academic enterprise. As a religious historian, I am researching the relationship between nationalism and sanctity. In Catholic countries this is a rather straightforward affair: think Patrick of Ireland or Louis of France. But in nations where Catholics have historically been in the minority, it is much more complicated.

In the 1880s, Catholics in both the United States and Canada began to complain that they lacked a national patron saint. By that time, 17 men and women from Central and South America had been canonized, and the first of those, Rose of Lima, had been a saint for more than two centuries. Church leaders believed their search for a saint had long been handicapped by anti-Catholicism in the United States and Canada, and many of them insisted that canonizing a saint from North America would actually help Catholics reduce anti-Catholicism.

This premise may seem counterintuitive, as saints were particularly likely to evoke Protestant suspicion. Nevertheless, it was in part the desire to root Catholicism more firmly in American soil that prompted Church leaders in the United States and Canada to introduce jointly in 1884 the causes for canonization of the North American martyrs, eight Jesuit missionaries killed in New France between 1642 and 1649. Two of them — Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil — died in territory that later became part of upstate New York, so technically they counted as U.S. saints.

I spent the remainder of my time in Rome in the Vatican Secret Archives, examining documentation on the North American martyrs and the other U.S. causes for canonization introduced more than a century ago. Some of them, such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann and Mother Theodore Guerin, would eventually make it all the way. Others, such as Francis Xavier Seelos and Kateri Tekakwitha, have been beatified. And still other causes, such as that of Rev. Leo Henrichs, a Franciscan killed by an anarchist in 1908, have all but disappeared, consigned to be the equivalent of “cold cases” in the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints.

The North American martyrs were canonized collectively in 1930. By that time, though, they were almost entirely associated with Canada. Catholics in the United States waited until 1946 for the canonization of their first saint, Frances Cabrini, an Italian missionary who served the immigrant Catholics in the United States between 1889 and 1917.

I have read many accounts of the celebrations that attended Cabrini’s canonization, as well as of those that followed the 1975 canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton as the first native-born U.S. saint. But seeing the abundance of Canadian flags and the ebullience of the Australian pilgrims on this occasion gave me a new appreciation of the way patriotism and sanctity can blend to make a canonization a national triumph as well as a religious one.

Having thought about canonization as a pilgrim for the better part of a year, and as a historian for even longer, I was surprised that a relatively unexamined moment brought me the closest to understanding the meaning of André’s canonization. Early on the last morning of my visit, as I am crossing an almost deserted Saint Peter’s Square, I happen to catch André’s eye from the banner that still hangs from the balcony. For the first time, I see him neither as an intercessor nor as a scholarly subject, but as my friend, André, whom I happened to run across in the piazza.

He has, like all good friends, made me want to become a better person. I think about moments in the last year that, because I was thinking about him, I was a more open to hospitality or humility. I think about relationships in my life that he has transformed, such as my friendship with Suzy Fitzpatrick, whose cure was the miracle we didn’t receive, but whose graceful and peaceful passing nonetheless convinced me of the intercession of André and his good friend Joseph, the patron of a happy death.

I multiply my stories by the thousands of people who have journeyed to Rome for André’s canonization, and by the hundreds of thousands who come each year as either pilgrims or tourists to the Oratory of Saint Joseph. Then I multiply that number by the millions of Catholics in the universal church who cannot call André either a confrere or a fellow citizen, but who will learn about him because his feast day will appear on the calendar, and holy cards and medals bearing his name will be distributed throughout the world.

I think about how, for all of us, that narrow gate will seem to widen a little, because André is holding it open.

Saint André Bessette, pray for us.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies and associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.