We Americans are a fiercely nationalistic people – not merely patriotic, but nationalistic. Not only are foreign peoples to be rated to the degree that they resemble us, but those who do not are truly “lesser breeds without the law”. While “un-Italian,” “un-French,” and, say, “un-Dutch” would mean only “foreign” to denizens of those respective countries, “un-American” carries with it all sorts of immoral and dishonest connotations.
Despite the active Causes for canonisation of nine beati, 20 venerabili, and scores of Servants of God born or martyred in the United States, many – perhaps most – are unknown to the majority of American Catholics. At the same time, there are at least five foreign candidates for sainthood who have relatively large followings in the United States.
Why are these foreigners so popular in this country? I suspect that, unconsciously, each represents to many Catholic Americans various traits missing in the English-speaking Church in the United States. These five foreigners present an antidote to our malaise, and knowingly or not, their American devotees are reaching out for it.
Perhaps the most unlikely is Blessed Emperor Charles of Austria. Not only was he a monarch (a job we are taught from infancy to despise), he was also at war with the United States. Worse still, his American adversary was the sainted Woodrow Wilson: father of the League of Nations, the Federal Reserve System and income tax. Nevertheless, the American branch of the Emperor Charles League of Prayer has an extensive website and a beautiful new prayer book. There are 12 shrines in his honour in this country, each safeguarding a first-class relic of our former opponent.
As the Emperor’s feast day (his wedding anniversary rather than his death day) strongly implies, his consort Empress Zita is very likely to join him one day on the Church’s altars. Interestingly enough, the second of Blessed Charles’s required two miracles was for a Baptist boy in Florida, who subsequently converted with his family. Among other things, Blessed Charles – who often offered his pains and suffering for the reunion of his peoples – embodies an heroic sort of leadership willing to sacrifice itself for its subjects’ lives. Few if any American presidents even remotely fit that bill.
A little less offensive to American standards, but still rather an odd duck from our perspective, is Blessed Pier Giorgio Michelangelo Frassati. Handsome, athletic, intellectual and devout, he was nevertheless Italian – very Italian.
Combining the typical social life of a young upper-class man with an aversion to immorality and active membership in Catholic Action and numerous Catholic devotional organisations, on the way to his funeral both his father’s allies in officialdom and his own in high society were amazed at what they saw: thousands of Turin’s poor lining the streets to honour the young man who had come to be known among them as their greatest benefactor.
FrassatiUSA has both a detailed website and a great many subscribers. There are no fewer than 24 Frassati fellowships and societies scattered around the United States, and their number is growing. Blessed Pier Giorgio in his youthful vigour and deep piety offers a complete rejection of the notion that personal devotion belongs exclusively to little old ladies saying their rosaries.
In contrast to the imperial couple and the Italian athlete, Dorothy Day is as American as – well, Greenwich Village. Foundress of the Catholic Worker and its movement, she is a Servant of God at the moment. While many in the United States and around the world venerate her because of her concern for the poor, not that many realise that behind her as mentor stood a solid Catholic thinker, a French immigrant named Peter Maurin. Those who know Dorothy best are aware that without Maurin, there would have been no Dorothy Day, at least as she became known.
By Dorothy’s own and frequently repeated admission, it was Peter who provided for the nascent community the essential link between action and theory, between what the community was doing, and Catholic history and tradition. As one Catholic Worker said, “If they’re going to beatify Dorothy, they really should beatify Peter.” With his deep knowledge of Catholic history and social teaching, Peter Maurin did his best to integrate American and European Catholic Action while preserving the tie between devotion and activism.
GK Chesterton is probably far more widely embraced in the United States than in Britain. Ignatius Press of San Francisco reprinted all his writings, while Dale Ahlquist and his American Chesterton Society have gone to great lengths in propagating the work of the master in this country – both generally and through a nationwide web of local chapters. The United States even boasts a network of Chesterton Schools. In a time when most people accept the idea that religion inevitably retreats as education expands, GKC’s life and work showed that Catholicism is truly the “thinking man’s religion”.
On September 2, 2017, a Mass at the Oxford Oratory launched the beatification process for JRR Tolkien. Now, as a writer, Tolkien has already outdone in popularity in this country virtually every American novelist – even those such as Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. But if his Cause gains any traction, it shall no doubt be taken up with a vengeance by Catholic Americans. Tolkien’s work managed to re-enchant daily life for millions of fans. Applying that same sense of wonder to such things as the Sacraments can go far in returning them to their proper place in our lives.