WASHINGTON — Nine years ago, Dawn Eden needed help beyond her own resources. She was about to lose her job at the New York Post, a major daily newspaper in Manhattan, and good journalism jobs were hard to come by, even though the crash of 2008 wasn't yet a blip on the horizon.
"I was terribly anxious and thought I would never work again," said Eden, who today is a Catholic writer on spirituality. At the time, however, she was just beginning her exploration of the Roman Catholic faith, and believed that asking a "saint" in heaven to pray for her — something Catholics do daily — "was a form of idolatry," a view held by many non-Catholic faiths.
Then a Catholic friend explained to Eden that she wouldn't be worshipping saints, but only asking them to pray for her. Relieved, Eden prayerfully petitioned St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest and journalist who volunteered for execution at Auschwitz during World War II in place of another man, for his intercession. Kolbe is the patron saint of journalists.
"I thought it would be like in the movies and I would get a promotion. Kind of a superstition to get material wishes," Eden recalled. "What I did receive was grace and peace. I received this very sudden and very definite sense of being at the eye of the storm. Whatever happened to me, I would be OK."
She said asking a saint for prayer "brought me in line with God's will, where I hadn't been before."
On Sunday, the world's nearly 2 billion Roman Catholics will celebrate the canonization by Pope Francis of two new saints: the late popes John XXIII, who died in 1963, and John Paul II, who died nine years ago. These elevations of two beloved church leaders have sparked a renewed interest in what a Catholic saint is, and how believers interact with these people whose names are often shorthand for the truly righteous among all the Christians who've ever lived, at least as recognized by Rome.
Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, said viewing the saints as friends and inspirational figures is the way Catholics should consider them.
"The Catholic Church worships the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that's it. Period," he said. "Others who we very strongly believe are in heaven and are alive since they are alive, we can contact them through prayer and they can increase our prayers before the throne of God."
While the recognition for John XXIII comes a little more than 50 years after his passing, the calls for John Paul II's canonization began within days of his death: "Santo subito!" ("Sainthood Now!") was the shout of the crowds filling St. Peter's Square in Rome as world dignitaries, including U.S. President George W. Bush and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, paid their respects.
The son of an Italian farmer, Angelo Roncalli — the Cardinal of Venice, Italy, who took the name John XXIII at his election as supreme pontiff — was noted for his humor. During a visit from then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the pope elicited strong laughter from the American. When Eisenhower, a Presbyterian, asked Pope John how many people worked at the Vatican, the pope famously replied, "About half."
But John XXIII's greatest legacy was his call for a Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962 and concluded after his death. The meetings, the highest ecclesiastical assembly held in the Roman Catholic Church, were designed to "open the windows" of the church's hierarchy, and that's what happened. Changes in liturgy, in the way Rome saw other Christians as well as non-Christians, and other decisions reshaped the way Catholics acted in the world.
One young Vatican II participant, then the Bishop of Krakow, Poland, was Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 was elected to succeed the tragically brief 33-day papacy of John Paul I. Taking the name John Paul II, Wojtyla, athletic and with a stage actor's charisma, became a globetrotting pastor, drawing crowds in the millions wherever he landed, even late in life when Parkinson's disease ravaged him.
Although his era was later tarnished by revelations of sexual abuse by priests and others working for the church, John Paul II's legacy was his global evangelism, his magnetic appeal to young people, and his pastoral influence in helping countries overthrow communism. Surviving an assassination attempt on his life and later living with a debilitating illness, the Polish-born pontiff exemplified for many the ability to thrive under trying circumstances, as well as an ability to forgive even the man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to kill him.
The spirituality of both popes impressed writer Eden: "John XXIII and John Paul II were men of great virtue and great holiness," she said. "Each of them lived their spirituality very deeply."
Discovering the more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, Eden said, "was like having all these new friends. The more I learned about their earthly lives; knowing they are in heaven, I can see their lives and how they got to heaven."
A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Eden chronicled how the lives of the saints gave her hope in her 2012 book, "My Peace I Give You."
"It was deeply healing for me to learn that there were saints who suffered flashbacks and other effects of post-traumatic stress," Eden said. "Some saints, like the former slave Josephine Bakhita, suffered flashbacks on their deathbed. Their stories helped me to overcome the misplaced guilt and shame that I suffered as a result of the sexual abuse I endured in childhood."
Saints' dual roles
Viewing the saints as both fellow intercessors and as examples highlights their dual functions for Catholics, said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author who told of his own spiritual experiences in "My Life With the Saints."
Martin said the "two traditional models" were "one, (as) the patron, the one who prays for us in heaven, and one is the companion, the example of Christian life. So a lot of it depends on the particular Catholic. Some relate mainly by asking for their prayers, some relate to them as (role) models."
The saints, Martin added, were also human: "One of the problems with the saints is that years after their death, they get tamed, and their rough edges are worn away. The saints weren't perfect, and they had their foibles and their flaws like anyone, and it's important to remember they all weren't cookie-cutter models of one another," he said.
The humanity of the popes, and their accomplishments, should endear them to all Christians, and not just Catholics, said Timothy George, an evangelical and dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
"They're two of the greatest figures of Christianity in the last 100 years, for sure, for all Christians," George said of the popes to be cannonized. "I think John Paul II was probably the most consequential pope since the (Protestant) Reformation. His incredible life story is just remarkable."
How should evangelicals approach the saints? "I'm not a Roman Catholic," George said. "Actually, I'm a Southern Baptist. There are deep differences between Protestants and Catholics. We can honor them, and should, and give thanks to God for their faithful life."
And R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, said evangelicals can admire noble Christians, but shouldn't pray to them.
"The understanding that (saints) can have a continuing ministry amongst those who are now alive, by means of some type of intercession, is entirely foreign to evangelical faith and practice," he said. "The New Testament clearly teaches that every believer is a saint, and that saints are not to be venerated, but rather those who are worthy to be emulated should be emulated so far as they follow Christ."
Making a saint
How does a Catholic become a saint? Two prerequisites are dying and having taken part in at least two "postmortem miracles," according to "Saints For Dummies," by Catholic priests Revs. John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti.
Also required is having led "an exemplary life," or having undergone martyrdom. Changing from an immoral life to one of "outstanding holiness" following "a major conversion of heart," the authors say, can trump the martyrdom requirement.
A local diocese generally proposes candidates for sainthood. The proposal wends its way through Catholic hierarchy, with every aspect of a person's life examined along with evidence for the postmortem miracles, which Revs. Trigilio and Brighenti describe as "usually an immediate, complete and spontaneous cure of a serious and pathological disease or condition which medical science cannot explain or refute."
Once all the evidence is verified, a Vatican body known as the Congregation of Saints evaluates the material and decides whether or not a candidate's case is passed on to the pope, who makes the ultimate decision.
For his part, Jesuit author Martin laughed when asked if, at some future date, the Catholic world would ever see a "St. James Martin."
"We're all called to be saints, all of us, it's not just a vocation for just a few," he said. "But, officially, only a few of us are recognized as saints, and I doubt that will be me. But I strive to lead a holy life."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Mark_Kellner