Today Pope John Paul II canonized Philadelphia’s second official saint: Mother Katharine Drexel (1858-1955). Saint Katharine, as Roman Catholics will now call her, was the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (1891). Despite the fact that she inherited the Drexel family’s fabulous banking fortune, she took a vow of poverty in order to serve African and Native Americans. By the time of her death at the age of 96, Mother Drexel had disbursed some $20 million to charitable causes, using her inheritance to establish more than 200 Catholic missions and dozens of schools for American Indians and African Americans.
It is not easy to become a Catholic saint, so how did Katharine qualify? Obviously, in order even to be considered, she had to be known for good works. And so she was. Katharine cared for the poor and the needy of Philadelphia. She also lived in poverty herself, mending her own clothes and traveling by third-class rail. Long before the Civil Rights movement, she had a special concern for racial reconciliation. In addition to the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Katharine also promised “To be the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races according to the rule of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; and not to undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian and Colored races.”
Yet for all her many virtues, Katharine Drexel never could have been canonized without performing at least two certifiable, posthumous miracles. In 1975 a Bensalem teenager reported that his hearing was restored after praying to Katharine from his hospital bed. Medical experts discovered that a bone in the boy’s ear that had been dissolved by a previous infection had inexplicably grown back. Then in 1993 the family of a 1-year-old in Bucks County claimed that in answer to the prayers offered in the name of Saint Katharine, their daughter was healed of nerve deafness. After conducting a thorough investigation, a panel of Vatican doctors declared that both of these healings were undoubtedly miraculous.
It easy to understand why the Roman Catholic Church wants to honor their dead. As the Scripture says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). It is also easy to see the value of emulating outstanding Christians in their practical godliness. We are called to care for the needy, to love mercy, and to break the cords of injustice. The work that Katharine Drexel did among the urban poor is the kind of service that Christ demands of all his disciples.
Yet her canonization also shows what is wrong with the entire Catholic notion of sainthood. To begin with, there is no biblical support for the idea of praying to the dead. The Bible teaches that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). If that is true, then offering intercession to someone like Katharine Drexel is at best unnecessary, and at worst blasphemy.
Then there is the issue of the healings themselves. Were they genuine miracles? I don’t know. Maybe they were, but if so, then God should get the credit for them, and not some dead person. One is reminded of the apostle Paul, who rebuked the people of Lystra for trying to worship him after he performed a miracle, saying “We too are only men, human like you” (Acts 14:15).
The process of becoming a saint is also open to corruption. Candidates go through a careful screening process that involves reading letters, conducting interviews, and studying medical records. Sometimes—as in the recent case of Pius IX—the saint’s corpse has to be exhumed for evidence. However, in order for all of this to be successful, it pays to know someone at the Vatican. In the words of one professor from Notre Dame, “It helps a lot if you have connections in Rome. And it helps a lot if you can come up with the bucks.” Perhaps that explains why some Catholics have returned to selling relics, like they did in the Middle Ages. It may also explain why sainthood has become a growth industry in Rome: The current pontiff has canonized nearly 300 saints.
These problems aside, the real difficulty with making someone like Katharine Drexel a saint is that it gives the impression that there are two kinds of Christians. There are ordinary Christians, and then there are saints. However, the New Testament refers to all God’s people as saints, even the ones who seem more like sinners. So, for example, when the apostle Paul wrote letters to Christians in Ephesus and Philippi, he addressed them as “the saints in Christ Jesus.”
During the centuries that followed, it was customary for Christians to refer to one another as saints. This preserved an important truth; namely, that every Christian is holy. The word “saint” (hagios) simply means “holy one.” The reason we are “holy ones” is not because we are particularly holy ourselves, but because Jesus Christ is holy, and we are connected to him by faith.
A good place to see what the Bible means when it talks about saints is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were not very holy. In fact, they were guilty of pride, adultery, dissension, and a host of other sins. Nevertheless, Paul addressed them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1 Cor. 1:2). As unholy as they were, the Corinthians were made holy by their faith-connection to Jesus Christ. Later Paul would tell them: “you are in Christ Jesus, who… is our holiness” (1 Cor. 1:30).
The saintliness of the saints, therefore, does not depend on their own personal holiness. It depends on the holiness of Jesus Christ, received by faith. Rather than being a sort of lifetime achievement award for super-Christians, sainthood is the high privilege of every sinner who trusts in Christ for forgiveness. We cannot be certain if Katharine Drexel was a saint in the biblical sense of the word or not. But if she was, it was only by faith.
[Biographical information about Katharine Drexel comes from recent articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the January 11 issue of U.S. News & World Report. For a brief summary of Catholic beliefs on sainthood, see Matthew F. Kohmescher, Catholicism Today: A Survey of Catholic Belief and Practice (New York: Paulist, 1999), pp. 205-209]
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