The Need to Create and Idolize Saints and Demigods
Arguably, the most intriguing fact about saints is their existence. What craving drives countless people to seek or create someone above themselves who they can transform into icons?
Archaeological findings indicate every civilization has endowed certain gods or godlike figures with supernatural powers. Nearly every religion scorns deities or demigods from the past as idols. Still, adherents of each new belief system find their own figureheads before whom they bow down. This genuflection may be manifested in physical, emotional, spiritual terms, or all of these combined. In our own day, we condescend to what we dismiss as mythologies.
The Romans Embraced Greek Divinities
Examples are the Greek Poseidon, god of rivers, seas, and climatic upheavals, and Roman Jupiter, the king of the gods. Once having added Greece to its empire, Rome embraced much of Greek culture and beliefs. Nearly all Roman deities were based upon their Greek originals. Though their names were changed, they were held to be replicas of each other.
The Birth of The Demigod
In order to inspire everyday people to risk their lives to defend their native lands, figures had to be presented as heroes to admire and emulate. Logically, this need contributed to the creation of the demigod: generally born from the union of a god and a mortal woman, The Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter opened this potential by being perceived as immortal philanderers.
The ultimate example is Hercules, the child of the Greek king of the gods Zeus and the mortal Greek maiden Alcmene. Even in our own day, those possessing seemingly superhuman strength in any area of life are viewed as having Herculean powers. This is not to imply these figures were master-minded with the intention of instilling characteristics vital to a society. Instead, Idealization represents the need to embody values required during a definite time. The human psyche shapes what it needs, whether via demigod, saint or celebrity.
Adaptations by Christianity
While determined to detach itself from previous beliefs, Christians soon began to create saints akin to the demigods of other religions. The first recognized of these were the twelve Apostles, designated as saints due to their acceptance of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Later, controversies arose as to whether or not Judas Iscariot should be included among their number. While for centuries, Judas was despised as the betrayer of Christ to the Romans, later interpretations have questioned his guilt.
Assuming he was predestined, even before entering his mother’s womb, to be part of the plan to add to the expansion of Christ’s global influence by his death as a fairly young man, can Judas be blamed for carrying out the role assigned to him? Whether or not Judas kissed Jesus’ cheek in the Garden of Gethsemane and said, “Hail, Master”, Christ’s power had reached a level at which he would have been arrested and killed, even if Judas had never existed. Thus, Judas expedited, rather than caused Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.
Demigods Evolving Into Saints
While most cultures have shaped saints to meet the needs of their people, for our purposes here we will focus on the need for someone to pray to/for specific needs, we will discuss Christian saints-their majority Catholic in origin. Indeed, as saints, like prior demigods, were designated as blessing various areas of life and aiding achievement of specific goals and endeavors. Such was their power that, for some decades, Catholic priests refused to baptize babies who were not given the names of saints. Those canonized by the Vatican became the equivalents of demigods. Hence, instead of praying to Poseidon for a safe journey on a river or sea, a Catholic might implore St. Christopher.
St. Christopher’s De-canonization
I have always felt an affinity and compassion for this perhaps fictional Saint. Growing up in an Irish Catholic community, it was accepted that everyone went to mass at St. Christopher’s Church, every Sunday morning. There was a statue of St. Christopher near its door; I recall touching the hand-carved arms cradling the baby Jesus against his chest. Then, in mid-1969, St. Christopher’s status as a saint was erased. At the year’s beginning, he had been a saint. By the midpoint of that same year, his very existence had been called into question, his right to sainthood obliterated.
Repercussions of This Decision
The name of the church near my home was altered to something irrefutable, such as The Church of all Saints. Despite this change, it is hard to believe many Catholics threw away their St. Christopher’s, especially those who had been baptized in his name and chosen him as their patron saint.
However, there were those who, feeling protected for decades by St. Christopher shields on the dashboards of their cars, experienced real distress at his seemingly sudden dismissal. Ultimately, whether he lived at all or deserved to be sainted via an ambiguous definition, his embodiment and sanctification represents a human need, fulfilled by his image. He symbolizes the wish we each have, not only for ourselves and those dear to us to arrive safely at our destinations, but in an over-all sense, towards one another, in human concern and fellowship.
Scams and Chicaneries
According to the Catholic religion, many Christians, while having lived their lives in such a way as to render them worthy of heaven, died with enough sins on their souls to warrant time in the fires of hell, before earning the privilege. This temporary hell, called purgatory, lasted for an indefinite time. Though prayers could be said by mourners to expedite ascendance into paradise, such supplications yielded no certainty.
As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs— Attributed to John Tetzel
Finding Needs And Fulfilling Them
Still, then as now, where pain can be turned into profit, it eternally will be. Hence, the opportunist John Tetzel (1465-1519) a catholic preacher decided to sell indulgences to the bereaved by the promise that their purchase would liberate those dear to them from the agonizing blazes of hell. Tetzel’s success in these sales spurred him and others to provide any number of supposedly sanctified relics. Such hucksters sold numerous pieces of wood which they claimed to be fragments of the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. As revenue increased so did the range of objects provided, including those representing saints. Presumably, buyers believed such proofs of devoutness would serve as a kind of insurance for their pathway from the purging of purgatory to the peace of everlasting contentment in the hereafter.
The Need For Comfort Continues
The sale of indulgences is now frowned upon as extortionate and exploitive. Still, a few echoes continue, for the most part harmless, if reasonably priced. So long as such mementos as a flask of water from the Shrine of Lourdes, or a medal representing a saint can console, then why not make them available? Often, especially for the elderly, they engender or boost a sense of hope and well-being.
My paternal grandmother, steeped in Catholicism from the moment of her birth in Ireland, left a financial bequest to her church for masses to be said for her soul, after her passing. If this brought her a sense of peace as she died, I feel glad and grateful.
Skepticism Regarding Miracles And Martyrs
The early emphasis on miraculous events and willing death welcomed as a sign of faith are probably the largest barriers for potential converts to the Christian religion. As mentioned above, a good deal of early Christian teachings were akin to mythologies. This can be justified by the urge to render Christianity more acceptable to those perceived to be followers of pagan faiths. Still, given both the old and new Testaments of the Christian Bible, it seems many such beliefs were akin to those of supposed idol worshipers.
In our own day, we feel far more moved by Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s genuine, grueling work with the destitute and dying than we would be if she publicized having seen a celestial vision, or thrown her body into the flames of a funeral pyre.
The poor do not need our sympathy and pity. They need our love and compassion— Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Maria Goretti: A Modern Day Saint
Prepared to die rather than yield
Maria Goretti was born in 1890 in eastern Italy. Her father’s failing health resulted in financial hardship causing the family to move and share a home with the seemingly upright Serenelli family.
When Maria was nine, her father died. This further increased their dependence upon the Serenelli family. Maria took on extra chores, such as mending torn clothes. During 1902, while mending a tear in a shirt of nineteen-year-old Alessandro Serenelli he approached Maria and attempted to rape her. She resisted telling him such closeness would be a mortal sin, and she would rather die than consent. Unable to overcome Maria’s resistance he stabbed her fourteen times.
Maria's And Her Mother’s Forgiveness
When Maria’s mother returned home, she found her daughter in a state of near death, and rushed her to hospital. Before dying the next day of her injuries Maria revealed the harrowing truth about Alessandro’s crime, and then forgave him saying she hoped he would go to heaven. Following a brief trial, Alessandro was imprisoned for thirty years. After his release, he went to the home of Maria’s mother and pleaded for her forgiveness. Maria’s mother forgave him saying she could do no less than her daughter had.
On June 24, 1950, Pope Pius XII canonized Maria as a saint. Both her mother Assunta and her killer Alessandro Serenelli attended the ceremony.
Maria Goretti is the patron saint of chastity, youth, young women, purity, rape victims, poverty, and forgiveness. Her shrine the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces and Saint Maria Goretti is located in Nettuno Italy.
Becoming Canonized is Not Easy
Much like the awarding of British knighthoods, Olympic medals or artistic and scientific prizes, only the names of the winners, or serious contenders, are proclaimed, with accolades, to the public. Given this knowledge, we as a part of this public assume the route towards this goal to have flowed and flown, with barely if any hurdles, from inception to success. This applies to canonization as well. The emphasis has changed from sacrifice to kindness towards others. The Biblical statement that “faith without acts is dead” has promoted a proactive aim towards the spirit of giving.
On Trial in Absentia: The Screening of Candidates
The worthiness of a potential saint is evaluated by similar methods as those in a court of law. An advocate for the candidate’s defense puts forth the reasons he or she is worthy. Conversely, the prosecutor provides any damning information exhaustive research has unearthed. The jury consists of a tribunal of several people considered able to reach a balanced decision. One cannot help but feel compassion for anyone whose life is viewed with microscopic thoroughness, while unable to clarify or explain misconceptions. Fortunately, current saints are permitted a few more blunders and peccadillos than in the past-in short; they are allowed to have been human beings.
Dorothy Day And Her Position on Sainthood
From my perspective, one person most deserving of sainthood had no wish to be canonized. Dorothy Day, 1897-1980, devoted half a century to assisting the disadvantaged in a variety of ways. During the 1920s and 1930s, she contributed her work to a circle of liberals, radicals, Communists, and associated with playwrights and other intellectuals of her era. At age thirty, she converted to the Catholic religion. Although this encouraged her to become proactive in various philanthropic areas, it is saddening to think of the sacrifices she felt forced to make, as part of her religious commitment.
The Sorrow of Needless Sacrifice
Like many who devote themselves to the religious life, Dorothy Day believed relinquishment of healthy pleasures to be essential. Hence, various friends and associates had to be abandoned. She admits to having been “lonely, deadly lonely” during the first year of her conversion. In her view, a vital part of herself had to die, in order for her soul to be purified enough to be worthy of serving Christ.
“It was killing me to think of leaving him… I loved him in every way, as a wife, and as a mother even.”
Love as The Ultimate Forfeiture
In 1929, Dorothy Day wrote the above-quoted words regarding the upcoming severance of her relationship with her long-term partner, Forster Batterham. Due to his refusal to succumb to her religious principles, Day felt no choice but to terminate their commitment.
Originally, before her conversion, they had agreed their union would be solidified in a civil ceremony, rather than solemnized by a church. Day’s and Batterham’s mutual tenderness seems to have been such as to have withstood Day’s conversion, had he agreed to a church wedding. In fact, according to Day, his determination to adhere to their once shared beliefs made their parting more painful. She states her love for him stemmed, in large part, from “his integrity and his stubborn pride”.
Reasons For Dorothy Day’s Resistance
The process of creating a saint can cost as much as one hundred thousand dollars. This means one million dollars could be spent on adding ten names to the already lengthy roster. Due to her tireless dedication to helping the needy, several people mentioned her potential for canonization. Ms. Day was definite in her statements that she would rather the funds involved be used in practical ways, encouraging the poor to find work and improve their overall standard of living. This view is in fact in keeping with the beliefs taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ.
In her most well known quote, Dorothy Day said in reply to people regarding her as a saint "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily.”
Exalting a fellow being into a saint can tend to free others from practical work, based on their inability to offer that level of care and concern. Dorothy Day realized acts of kindness are within the scope of nearly all of us, not merely those pigeonholed by the church as having extraordinary gifts and seraphic qualities. For this reason, I believe Dorothy Day deserves emulation.
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© 2015 Colleen Swan