In 2002, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said to a meeting of the group Communion and Liberation:
I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
I think that both of these paths to the truth – beauty and the Saints – deserve a more serious examination, but I want to look at the second one today. Extraordinary holiness is a confirmation of orthodoxy, and both Catholics and Protestants need to be more thoughtful about the implications of that radical reality.
To take a personal example, I was troubled by these words by St. Maximilian Kolbe, in which he talks about the relationship between the “uncreated Immaculate Conception” (the Holy Spirit, Who eternally proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son) and the “created Immaculate Conception” (the Virgin Mary):
This eternal “Immaculate Conception” (which is the Holy Spirit) produces in an immaculate manner divine life itself in the womb (or depths) of Mary’s soul, making her the Immaculate Conception, the human Immaculate Conception. And the virginal womb of Mary’s body is kept sacred for him; there he conceives in time- because everything that is material occurs in time- the human life of the man-God.
And so the return to God (which is love), that is to say the equal and contrary reaction, follows a different path from that found in creation. The path of creation goes from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit; this return trail goes from the Spirit through the Son back to the Father; in other words, by the Spirit the Son becomes incarnate in the Womb of the Immaculata; and through this Son love returns to the Father.
And she (the Immaculata), grafted into the Love of the Blessed Trinity, becomes from the first moment of her existence and forever thereafter the “complement of the Blessed Trinity”.
In the Holy Spirit’s union with Mary we observe more than the love of two beings; in one there is all the love of the Blessed Trinity; in the other, all of creation’s love. So it is that in this union heaven and earth are joined; all of heaven with all the earth, the totality of eternal love with the totality of created love. It is truly the summit of love.
At Lourdes, the Immaculata did not say of herself that she had been conceived immaculately, but, as St. Bernadette repeated, “Que soy era immaculada councepciou”: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
If among human beings the wife takes the name of her husband because she belongs to him, is one with him, becomes equal to him and is, with him, the source of new life, with how much greater reason should the name of the Holy Spirit, who is the divine Immaculate Conception, be used as the name of her in whom he lives as uncreated Love, the principle of life in the whole supernatural order of grace?”
Even as a Catholic, that letter sounded a lot like Mary worship. And I’m apparently not the only one who had this reaction. At the canonization, amidst declaring Maximilian Kolbe a Blessed, Pope Paul VI felt the need to clarify that Kolbe didn’t worship Mary:
Let no hesitation restrain our admiration and commitment to all that our new Blessed had left us as a heritage and an example, as if we too were distrustful of such and exaltation of Mary in view of two other theological movements, the Christological and ecclesiological, which seem to compete today with the Mariological. On the contrary, there is no competition, for in Father Kolbe’s Mariology, Christ holds not only the first place but the only necessary and sufficient place in the economy of salvation. His love of the Church and its salvational mission was never forgotten either in his doctrinal outlook or in his apostolic aim. On the contrary, it is precisely from our Lady’s complementary, subordinate role in regard to Christ’s universal, saving design for man that she derives all of her prerogatives and greatness. […,]
Therefore our Blessed is not to be reproved, nor the Church with him, because of their enthusiasm for the formal religious veneration of the Mother of God. This veneration with its rites and practices will never fully achieve the level it merits, nor the benefits it can bring precisely because of the mystery that unites her to Christ, and which finds fascinating documentation in the New Testament. The result will never be a “Mariolatry,” just as the sun will never be darkened by the moon; nor will the mission of salvation specifically entrusted to the ministry of the Church ever be distorted if the latter honors in Mary an exceptional Daughter and a Spiritual Mother.
The pope’s words provided me with some measure of comfort: an official clarification of how not to read what Kolbe is saying. But what really put my mind at ease was knowing a bit about Maximilian Kolbe’s own life. That troubling letter that I mentioned? It’s the last thing that he wrote before being arrested by the Nazis: it was written just a few hours before his arrest, on February 17, 1941.
After being sent to Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kobe lived a Christ-like life. One of the other prisoners later recounted a characteristic event:
I could see that Father was straining hard, but was unable to budge the heavy load. I stopped and offered to make the trip in his place. The guard caught us talking. First he beat us both with his whip, Then he ordered me to sit in the wheelbarrow, making Fr. Kolbe’s burden even heavier. Without a word of complaint, the little priest found superhuman strengthen to push the wheelbarrow to the site where the crematorium was being built.
Fr. Kolbe comforted the man by saying, “Henry, don’t lose heart. Everything we suffer is for the Immaculate Virgin. Even here, we must pray for those who harm us.”
And Kolbe also died a Christ-like death, a fact that even the New York Times seems to have recognized. In the 1995 obituary of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the Times recounted the extraordinary circumstances of Kolbe’s death:
Mr. Gajowniczek, one of several prisoners selected by the Nazis to die by starvation in a dungeon at Auschwitz called the “hunger bunker,” survived because the Rev. Maksymilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
When the punishment was imposed because another inmate had escaped, Mr. Gajowniczek, who was a farmer in civilian life, pleaded that he should be spared because he had a wife and children.
On a visit to the United States last December, Mr. Gajowniczek told the story himself: “Father Kolbe told the commandant, ‘I want to go instead of the man who was selected. He has a wife and family. I am alone. I am a Catholic priest.’ ” The priest also contended that he was “elderly,” Mr. Gajowniczek said. Father Kolbe was then 47. Mr. Gajowniczek was 41. The commandant agreed to the switch.
In the underground cell the priest sought to console the condemned men, leading them in prayers and hymns. After ten days, on Aug. 14, 1941, he and three others remained alive. Then a German doctor came and killed them with injections of carbolic acid.
It’s one of the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever heard: a priest volunteering to die by slow starvation to save another man’s life. And it really leaves only two possibilities: either St. Maximilian Kolbe performed these extraordinary actions (1) because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, or (2) on his own, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit. But the second possibility, the idea that we can do these sort of extraordinary good works apart without grace and the involvement of the Holy Spirit, is the heresy of Pelagianism. Ultimately, that would mean that we could have goodness without God, which is contrary to what Christianity teaches about the nature of God (and about goodness).
So we have to conclude that these extraordinary works weren’t just natural goodness, but the work of the Holy Spirit through St. Maximilian Kolbe. Once you realize that, it’s virtually impossible to deny that (a) Kolbe died a Saint and (b) he’s held up for us by the Holy Spirit as a model. That is, we’re not talking about someone who barely made it into Heaven, but someone who died a glorious Christian death, the kind of death made possible only by special graces of the Holy Spirit. It’s the kind of death that the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews points to as evidence of the power of faith (see Hebrews 11:35-38).
The point of Hebrews 11 is twofold: first, that these great deeds are possible only through faith; and second, that these Old Testament Saints are a model for all of us. That’s made clear in the verses immediately following: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). So these extraordinary lives (and deaths) of the Saints are given to us to inspire our own faith.
That means that we can’t say that the Holy Spirit saved St. Maximilian Kolbe in spite of his theology. We can’t say that he barely made it into Heaven. Why would the Holy Spirit choose to hold us as an example someone who we shouldn’t listen to? So it’s just impossible to recognize these facts and hold that St. Maximilian Kolbe was a heretical, idolatrous Mary-worshipper.
I’m using St. Maximilian Kolbe simply as an example. What I’m saying really applies both to any of the great Saints, and even to the ordinary saintly believers that we run into in our daily lives. Protestants and Catholics have a healthier relationship now than perhaps at any point since the Reformation, and that’s beautiful. More than ever, Protestants number holy Catholics amongst their friends and neighbors. And more than ever, they’re ready to affirm that (at least some) Catholics are Christians, that the great Catholic Saints really are Saints. This is all wonderful, but it also raises a number of serious theological problems.
First of all, Christians are called to be in communion with one another (John 17:20-23) but separated from unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). So the growing recognition within Protestant circles that Catholics really are Christians raises the question: if you accept us as brothers and sisters in Christ, how can you justify not being in full union with us (or with one another)?
But second of all, the obvious fact that faithful Catholics really are Christian challenges a lot of what Protestantism teaches theologically. By way of analogy, consider the moral relativist who can’t shake the reality that murder really is objectively wrong. His theory points in one direction (there are no moral absolutes!) while the reality of his lived experience belies this. At some point, he has to either reject reality, reject his theory, or continue to live in a state of cognitive dissonance by holding to two contradictory positions. If murder is always wrong, then moral relativism is false.
How does that apply? Because historically, Protestant theology has viewed Catholicism as heretical, and Catholics as not true Christians. And this is the logical conclusion if Protestantism is true. If Catholics are wrong about the Real Presence, then we’re worshipping bread and wine. If Catholics are wrong about Mary and the Saints, then we’re wasting our time (at best) or offending God (at worst). We’re accused of being a “Jesus-plus” religion. believing that Jesus isn’t enough and that we have to add our good works, etc., instead of relying upon Him. If all of that were true, it’d be easy to see why we Catholics wouldn’t be true Christians.
But this theory is belied by two things: the great Saints of history, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, and the everyday witness of Jesus-loving Catholics living holy lives centered upon Jesus Christ. So you’ve got to either reject reality, reject your theory, or continue to hold two contradictory positions. If Catholics are Saints, then the charges against Catholicism are false.
If it is heretical to worship the Eucharist, how come there are so many Catholics who were/are obviously saintly? And if it isn’t heretical to worship the Eucharist, then come and kneel down next to us in front of the Eucharistic Lord!
And of course, this same line of reasoning applies whether we’re talking about the Eucharist, or praying to Mary and the Saints, or any number of other issues. If the core parts of Catholicism are heretically false, whither these extraordinary (and ordinary) Saints?