The gift of our lives

Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter motu proprio (on his own initiative) this Tuesday entitled Maiorem hac dilectionem, which is from a quote of Our Lord in John 15:13, when He said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In this document the Holy Father decreed (after having received a favorable reaction to this proposition at a meeting of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints last September) a new way for someone one to be canonized a saint.

The previous ways were martyrdom for the faith (being directly killed for professing the faith) or living a life of sanctity (a life of “heroic virtue”). 

Pope Francis said that besides those two groups of people, “those Christians are worthy of special consideration and honor who, following in the footsteps and teaching of Jesus, have offered their life voluntarily and freely for others and have persevered in this to death.”

The difference for this new group of people (who “gave their lives”) from people who died after a life of heroic virtue is that people in this new group may have lived the faith in an “ordinary” manner, but at the end of their lives they offered their lives up in a way in which they knew that their life would be shortened for the good of someone else. 

The Holy Father explained in the document, “It is certain that this heroic offering of life, suggested and sustained by charity, expresses a true, full and exemplary imitation of Christ and, therefore, is worthy of that admiration which the community of the faithful have usually reserved for those who have voluntarily accepted the martyrdom of blood or have exercised the Christian virtues to a heroic degree.”

Article two of the document lists five criteria for this new possible way of declaring someone a “blessed”:

a) “the free and voluntary offering of one’s life and the heroic acceptance of certain death and a brief end due to charity;”

b) “there must be a link between the offering of [one’s] life and the premature death;

c) “the exercise, at least in the ordinary decree, of Christian virtue before the offering of [one’s] life and then until death;”

d) “existence of fame of sanctity and signs of it, at least after death;”

e) “the necessity for beatification of a miracle having occurred after the death of the Servant of God [the person in question] and due to [this person’s] intercession.”

So, this is not some “easy” beatification process the Holy Father is introducing. It still requires that this person, after death, responds to the prayerful petitions of believers here on earth and obtains from God a miracle due to their intercession.

Marcello Bartolucci, writing in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, detailed the process by which the pope came to issue this decree. He noted that “already Benedict XIV, the teacher, did not exclude from the honors of the altars those who had given their life in an extreme act of charity, as for example, assisting people with the plague, discounting the contagion, which became the certain cause of their death.”

This mention might bring to mind saints such as St. Aloysius Gonzaga or St. Damien of Molokai. However, they would not need this process to declared saints because they had lived lives of heroic virtue before the care of the contagiously ill ultimately took their lives. What Pope Francis is envisioning here is people who were fairly average Catholics, but then made a choice to give their lives for the good of someone else (when they could have avoided doing so), as an act of love towards their neighbor.

St. Maximilian Kolbe would also not fit under this new category, because although he voluntarily offered his life in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek (when the Nazis were going to kill this innocent man at Auschwitz), he was declared a martyr by St. John Paul II. Decades after Kolbe’s canonization, the sainted Holy Father in an Angelus address on Aug. 15, 2001 noted, “[Kolbe’s] extraordinarily generous gesture can be symbolically considered a ‘gift to the family,’ whose fundamental mission in the Church and in society he understood well. May the memory of this martyr of charity help believers to follow Christ and His Gospel without hesitation or compromise.” Like Gonzaga and Damien, Kolbe had also lived a life of heroic virtue before the time of his death (which did make it “easier” for them to make the final sacrifice, since they had Spiritually prepared for it well, as St. Paul said about athletes preparing for a competition).

In Charles Dickens’ fictional work about the French Revolution (which we remember today, July 14, Bastille Day), “A Tale of Two Cities,” one of the characters, Sydney Carton, offers his life (and it is taken from him by the revolutionaries) so as to save another man’s life. He utters the oft-quoted line, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” This character had not lived an even average Christian life, but towards the end of the book, he began to change and this change is what empowered him to give his life for another man.

We do not know exactly how this new cause for sainthood will be implemented. It does remind us of our need to continue to grow in our own imitation of Christ (in which the Holy Father rooted the document), so that each day we can say yes to giving our lives to carry out His will, even if that means giving up our own lives so as to save another’s (and in doing so will actually save our eternal lives — see Mark 8:35).


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