Father Nelson Baker was officially proposed for sainthood in 1987, more than a quarter-century ago. Will he ever become a saint? Remember, the Catholic Church canonizes and even sometimes “drops” saints (the hugely popular Christopher was one) from its feast day lists. But what the church never seems to have done is declare that a person proposed for sainthood is not a saint.
John Paul II, pope in 1987, canonized more people (482) than any previous pope, far more than all his papal predecessors combined. Of his two successors, Benedict XVI canonized nearly 50 people before retiring in 2013 and approved sainthood for the 800 Otranto martyrs. So far, Pope Francis has canonized the 800 approved by Benedict and some others. Since 1978, then, these three popes have canonized more than 1,300 people – three times the number canonized in all previous papal reigns!
Will Baker join this growing list of Catholic saints? If not, why not? Who becomes a saint? Does one have to be dead to become a saint? Can a non-Catholic become a saint? Can even a non-Christian become a saint?
Members of the early church thought of themselves as saints. Paul’s Epistles commonly refer to the community of living believers as “saints.” It is also true that Catholics believe that a “communion of saints” exists between the church on earth and the church in heaven.
And, Christ himself “canonized” one of the earliest known saints – a living man. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus assures one of those crucified with Him on Calvary, “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise.” We know nothing of this man, except that he was a self-acknowledged criminal. Was he a Jew, as was Jesus? A pagan Roman outlaw? A common criminal? If so, his plea to Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” proved his heroic virtue.
Canonization is both a familiar and mysterious practice. “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (second edition) says that canonization is the church’s “solemn proclamation that a person practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace.” This “solemn proclamation” is understood as “an infallible declaration by the pope that a person who died a martyr and/or who practiced Christian virtue to a heroic degree is now in heaven.” But this simple definition obscures a demanding process.
Catholics have always venerated those believed to be in heaven. Early Christians highly esteemed their heroic martyrs, and eventually, came to believe in their intercessionary powers.
Among the earliest non-martyrs to be regarded as a saint was Martin of Tours, a fourth-century bishop and missionary in what is now France. The earliest known papal canonization that relied upon documentary support, Saint Udalricus, occurred in 973.
In 1171, Pope Alexander III made canonization the exclusive prerogative of the papacy. Now, a Vatican department called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints manages the process and canonization has evolved into a detailed, lengthy and expensive bureaucratic journey.
Canonization begins with a petition to the bishop that can come from “anyone of the People of God or groups of the faithful.” If approved by the bishop, the “cause,” or process, of canonization of the person proposed for sainthood is begun.
When approved by the Vatican, the person proposed becomes known as “Servant of God.” Public veneration of a Servant of God is not permitted by the church.
The local bishop then appoints a postulator (priest or layperson). Postulators serve as managers of the cause at the diocesan level. The postulator conducts a thorough investigation of the life of the Servant of God. This inquiry determines whether the person proposed for sainthood died a martyr and/or lived a life of “heroic virtue” in conformity with church teachings.
The first of these qualifiers, martyrdom, refers to a person’s conscious choice to suffer or die for the faith or for Christian principles. The second qualifier, heroic virtue, is more challenging because it is subjective. Heroic virtue is understood as a manifestation of faith and morals in action that can involve exceptional holiness or a combination of holiness and service to humanity.
After extensive investigation into the life and writings of the Servant of God at the local or diocesan level, the case for canonization, including supporting materials, is forwarded to the Congregation for Causes in Rome. This “case” includes crates of materials, files, documents, testimony, copies of writings, even photographs. A Positio, a summary of the case in narrative form, accompanies the material.
When it is approved by a majority of examiners in the Congregation for Causes, the petition is referred for further study to the bishops and cardinals who actually make up the Congregation. If they approve, the cause is sent to the pope, who issues a public decree of acceptance and bestows upon the proposed saint the title “Venerable.”
The next step, beatification, requires the support of an authenticated miracle. If a miracle is accepted as authentic, the pope declares the proposed saint “Blessed.”
Miracles are important to a cause because they provide the Vatican with a sort of divine affirmation of the worthiness of a person for sainthood. The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines a miracle as a “sensibly perceptible [evident] effect surpassing the powers of visible nature, [and] produced by God ….” The “powers of visible nature” are those that are explainable.
But canonization does not automatically follow beatification, even for the worthiest candidates. For example, there may not be a further miracle, one more of which is usually required. And, since there are no formal standards for measuring heroic virtue, compelling evidence of miracles plays an important role for those who are not martyrs.
Most miracles involve healings of incurable conditions or terminal illnesses. Satisfying miraculous standards, therefore, requires that plausible scientific or natural explanations for the claimed miracle be eliminated. In advanced societies, when medical care is received for most ailments, it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate every effect of treatment as an explanation for a cure.
Additionally, church leaders have their own ecclesiastical, religious, even political agendas. John Paul II’s aim of demonstrating the universality of the church by canonizing numbers of non-whites and non-westerners seems clear. He also usually canonized conservatives like himself. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, is an example.
As a July Buffalo News article about the efforts being made by Our Lady of Victory parish to raise money for Baker’s cause made clear, the financial demands are heavy. The article provoked a considerable backlash. News readers expressed astonishment and dismay at the high costs of obtaining what some called a “mere title.”
The advancement of a cause, as well as a thorough investigation into the life of a Servant of God, is quite costly at both the local and Vatican levels.
Cash-strapped and short on staff, dioceses often cannot afford the costs of promotional campaigns and high-priced canon lawyers in Rome necessary to manage the cause of a candidate.
Religious orders of men and women and Catholic movements like Opus Dei and the Knights of Columbus often have resources available to devote to the causes of their candidates. Thus, a candidate without the support of a religious community or lay movement is at a disadvantage.
And, the sheer volume of candidates for sainthood can delay the process. John Paul II, for example, beatified more than 1,300 people. Processing this staggering number must surely tax even the Vatican’s resources.
My official and unofficial association with Baker’s cause as historian and documentarian convinces me that the assessment of his heroic virtue will focus on his personal piety, his religious orthodoxy, his works of charity and the indisputable evidence of miracles. His piety is clearly established in the historical record as well as in the memory of people still living. The great Our Lady of Victory Basilica stands as inspiring testimony to his devotion to Mary.
No hint of irregularity regarding his Catholic orthodoxy appears in his more than 60-year affiliation with the church. Additionally, Baker served for 30 years as vicar general of the diocese. During two lengthy periods when Buffalo’s bishopric was vacant, Baker served as diocesan administrator. In effect, he was “acting bishop.”
As for “heroic virtues,” Baker’s seem obvious. His widespread ministries to orphans and wayward youths, his residences for young working men and women, his maternity hospital, general hospital, infant home and all the structures built to house these operations offer indisputable testimony to his work – which also embraced evangelizing and offering social services to African-Americans.
Baker’s works of charity are the strongest element in the case for establishing his heroic virtue. His commitment to serve the poor, abandoned, lonely, orphaned, hungry, unborn, racial minorities and the sick was tireless and far-reaching. Moreover, his work continues still.
Baker was an American original in social service. Prominent American Catholic women like St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Katherine Drexel (both born in America), and St. Frances (Mother) Cabrini (an immigrant) involved themselves in school, hospital, settlement house and social work on an important scale, but Baker was the first American-born Catholic male to operate in such an extensive way.
There are, however, handicaps to Baker’s canonization. First, the 75 years since his death have as yet produced no authenticated miracle attributable to his intercession. The vials of still liquid blood and fluids, discovered when his casket was opened in 1999, have not met Vatican standards of “miraculous.”
Secondly, for all his fame in the Buffalo area, Father Baker is comparatively little known beyond Western New York. This is attributable to the modest resources available to the cause for his canonization, but is also due to the fact that he did not create a national social service network. Nor did he found a religious order connected to his name. Furthermore, no guild has been formed to financially support his cause.
Thirdly, no American-born male has yet been canonized. The Vatican will make the selection of the first very carefully. The short list of possibilities includes Baker’s name. That list also includes better-known figures like New York’s Cardinal Terrence Cooke, Knights of Columbus founder Father Michael McGivney and television priest Bishop Fulton Sheen, all better known than Baker.
Additionally, a reaction to the huge numbers of saints canonized by the last three popes has set in. Complaints are heard that wholesale canonizations were degrading the honor.
Will Pope Francis (who actually canonized the 800 martyrs of Otranto) slow the process, even for the worthiest candidates? Who can know? The “democratic” process of recognizing saints by popular acclaim, prevalent in the early church, is long gone.
“Heroic” patience might be needed. It took nearly 500 years for St. Joan of Arc to be canonized in 1920. And she was much better known worldwide than Baker is known even regionally.
Timothy R. Allan, Ph.D., recently retired from the history faculty at SUNY Fredonia. He was official historian for the cause, commissioned by Bishop Edward D. Head to research and write a Vatican-required document known as the “Ambient History of Father Baker” for the initial case when Monsignor Robert Wurtz was postulator. The paper was included among the materials sent to Rome with the Positio. From 2001 to 2003, Allan was research historian and on-camera commentator for the award-winning television documentary, “Legacy of Victory: Remembering Father Baker.” He also worked closely with the Rev. Richard Gribble of Stonehill College, who wrote the authorized biography of Father Baker, “Father of the Fatherless,” in 2011.