This Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize seven new saints. His honorees include four women, two of whom—Franciscan sister Marianne Cope and lay contemplative Kateri Tekakwitha—have American roots. Their canonizations follow just two weeks after Benedict named German mystic Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church, a high honor bestowed on only three women before her.
Benedict’s pronouncements come amid intense media focus on the opinions of Catholic women and plight of Catholic nuns. More significantly, the pope has chosen to bestow these honors in the same month that he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, inaugurated a “Year of Faith” and convened a synod of bishops focused on what Blessed Pope John Paul II dubbed the “New Evangelization.” In his homily at the October 7 Mass that combined Hildegard’s honor with the opening of the synod, Benedict noted that saints like her are the “pioneers and bringers of the new evangelization” because they “show the beauty of the Gospel to those who are indifferent or even hostile” and invite “tepid believers to live with the joy of faith.”
Benedict seems to regard saints, and particularly the Church’s canonized women, as crucial to reviving the faith of lapsed and lukewarm Catholics. Over the past two years, he has devoted nearly twenty Wednesday audiences to singing the praises of the great women saints and explaining how their experiences and insights can still speak to us today.
It’s a truth I know from experience. Like many Catholics born after the Second Vatican Council, I grew up in parishes and parochial schools where Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness” was frequently intoned but the canonized men and women who had answered it were treated with ambivalence. May crownings and feast-day celebrations took a backseat to the fashioning of felt banners and singing of Marty Haugen hymns. We heard homilies about the saints at all-school masses every November 1, but few reminders to imitate them the rest of the year.
Thankfully, my parents were voracious readers of such Carmelite luminaries as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux, and their shelves brimmed with books by and about the saints. So when I found myself marooned at their new home in an unfamiliar city during a Christmas break from college, a 45-year-old biography of St. Teresa of Avila was waiting there to relieve my boredom. It took only a few pages to get me hooked.
This feisty, fiery sixteenth-century Spanish mystic and reformer captivated me for precisely the reasons that Benedict mentioned this past July, when he praised Teresa as a model for the New Evangelization whose “luminous and engaging call” remains “familiar in our own times.” Teresa’s struggles with everything from vanity and superficiality to status-seeking and people-pleasing spoke directly to my situation as a status-conscious 21-year-old college senior. Her distracted early efforts at prayer and years of backsliding on the road to virtue sparked pangs of recognition. And her passionate longing to live for something more fulfilling than worldly pleasure or success resonated deep within me.
Unlike the secular materialists I had studied in my feminist philosophy class that semester or the exhibitionist pop divas whose reductive views of women’s liberation had shaped my generation, Teresa had something genuinely hopeful to say to me. In this social-butterfly-turned-spiritual-dynamo, I saw a woman who was both faithful and free, one whose vision of the good life felt expansive enough to accommodate my boldest desires.
Getting to know Teresa awakened me to the possibility that the haunting emptiness I had begun feeling amid my boisterous campus social life and honor-student striving might be not a dead end. I realized, curled up with her biography that frosty December, that the emptiness might actually be an invitation: the faint stirring of that universal call to holiness that, for the first time, seemed worth answering.
Over the next 15 years, as I grappled with everything from my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease to my own journey through infertility, I found myself turning again and again to the wisdom of the women saints. From such holy women as Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mary of Nazareth, I reaped comfort and guidance, prodding and inspiration. I found myself marveling that these saints I once had considered too musty and simplistic to understand my contemporary concerns were, in fact, the surest guides to women’s liberation that I had ever known.
I am not alone. Recent decades have seen a revival of devotion to the saints even beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church. That revival has unfolded alongside a growing interest in John Paul II’s call in his 1995 “Gospel of Life” encyclical for “a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination,’ in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society.” As John Paul often noted, the women saints are the very embodiment of this “feminine genius” for radical openness to God and the human person.
For women dissatisfied by the stale bromides of secular feminism and the frothy, girl-power messages peddled by today’s pop culture, the wisdom of the women saints is a bracing and provocative antidote. These women offer models of feminine holiness in the flesh, in every era and every state of life. Their writings remind us that the problems we face are not nearly as original or intractable as we imagine. And in a culture of skeptics who shrug at proofs for God, their stories retain the power to inflame hearts and transform lives.
Benedict recognizes this power of the women saints, which is why he has given them pride of place at this month’s festivities in Rome. Pastors, parents, and catechists hoping to evangelize a new generation of women on this side of the Atlantic would be wise to follow suit.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television host of EWTN’s “Faith & Culture,” and former presidential speechwriter whose newest book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, will be released by Random House’s Image imprint on October 30. She will be speaking on My Sisters the Saints at a First Things event on November 13. Her website is here.