How saints are made: Father Capodanno, sanctity, and ducks
This week, it was reported that the cause for sainthood for Father Vincent Capodanno was recommended for suspension. Among the concerns raised by the Vatican consultants was the following: “Concern: The Positio focuses mainly on the last year of Father Vincent’s life. There is little record of the growth of his spirituality.” Naturally, when I read this concern, I thought to myself: ducks. Yes dear reader, if we desire sanctity, sometimes, we have to remember ducks.
The Catechism tells us, “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God's grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.”
Unfortunately, many of us may read the lives of the saints and come away feeling dejected. This happens, I believe, for the same reason why consuming social media can lead to feelings of depression: we are comparing ourselves to others. “Oh look, my friend Bob just bought a new house with the money he made from his new job. Oh, and there are the pictures from his summit to Mt. Everest. I hope he makes it back to the country in time for the ceremony honoring him for saving those orphans from that burning building. Well, I fixed a leaky faucet yesterday.”
These same comparisons are unhelpfully carried into the spiritual life. “St. Bernadette had visions of Our Lady. St. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in exchange for another prisoner in Auschwitz. St. Thomas More was beheaded. Well, I fixed a leaky faucet yesterday.”
This temptation to comparisons is understandable—and spiritually perilous. It is far too easy to look at the lives of the saints and despair that our own lives could possibly measure up. “Oh well,” we think, “I am not a saint.” And yes, sometimes, even Vatican consultants for sainthood may look at a life and think, “Ah, but compared to other saints’ lives…”
I humbly submit, this is the wrong test. The test we ought to be using is the duck test.
“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
It turns out that the reason why the saints are held as models for us is not because we are meant to imitate the circumstances of their life, but rather, the manner they respond to those circumstances. In any particular moment, the test is not, “how does my life measure up to the saints,” rather the test is, “what would a saint do now, in this moment?”
This is the duck test, or, the saint test. We may take St. Dismas, the good thief, as our prototypical model for the saint test. Evidently, he had lived a dissolute life until, finally, he was brought to his last few moments on earth. In this moment he had a choice. He could look to the foot of the cross, at St. John, and Our Lady, and think to himself, “Look how good they are and how evil I have been. I will never be like them.” This was the choice of Gesmas, the bad thief. Dismas realized there was another choice: he could instead ask, “What would those holy people do now?”
“Jesus, remember me.”
That’s exactly what a saint would do. “If he acts like saint…” This is why we call him St. Dismas.
St. Josemaria Escriva tells us that "‘Great’ holiness consists in carrying out the ‘little duties’ of each moment…Have you ever stopped to consider the enormous sum that many 'littles' can come to?"
To the Vatican consultants, I would ask, “Tell me, how does the death of Fr. Capodanno differ from that of a saint in his position?” What would a saintly priest do upon seeing a dying man on the battlefield, in need of last rites? What would a saint do as he saw a machine gun pointed at the injured man, a mere 30 feet away? With a man’s body and soul on the line, what would a saint do?
Twenty-seven. A saint would receive twenty-seven bullet wounds as he positioned himself between the wounded man and the machine-gunner. Not “more than 20.” Twenty-seven. The Marines who loved him and recovered his body must have counted. Imagine.
They would count all the way to twenty-seven, because each wound he received bore testament to the love he bore for his friends.
For hours during the battle that would take his life, Fr. Capodanno moved from Marine to Marine, comforting them, anointing the dying, and saying to each, “You’re not alone. God is with you. You’ll be all right.” He told the truth. To bring the mercy of God to the sinner is the call of every priest. As Caryll Houselander tells us, “Our destiny is to live the Christ-life: to bring Christ's life into the world; to increase Christ's love in the world; to give Christ's peace to the world.” What would a saintly priest do on the battlefield? Bring Christ’s peace. “God is with you.”
In that moment, Fr. Capodanno simply did what a saint would do. And this is all that is asked of each of us. Some moments may call for us to lay down our lives. Most won’t. In most moments, the answer to this question is far less dramatic. This ought to be a great comfort to us. There is no need to despair that our deeds may not compare with the great saints. God doesn’t ask that they do; He asks nothing more than that we follow His will for us at this moment, even though it might seem small and insignificant to us. Doing the will of God is never small and insignificant, for this is how saints are made. We would do well to remember what it was that St. Bernadette was doing when she had a vision of Our Lady: gathering firewood. What would a saint do when her mother asks her to gather firewood? Gather firewood. In that moment, gathering firewood was God’s will for her. And doing God’s will is all any saint can ever do.
Therefore, we must abandon the temptation to see ourselves as spiritual failures in comparison to other saints. That was never the saint test. The test was always: “Am I acting like a saint? Speaking like a saint? Thinking like a saint?” In a word, “what would a saint do at this moment to bring Christ to a weary world?” Some moments will call for us to turn our back to a machine gun to comfort the dying, others, to gather firewood. And yes, at times to fix the leaky faucet. Let our actions, however small they may seem, echo the words of Fr. Capodanno, “You’re not alone. God is with you. You’ll be all right.” For this is how saints are made.