Today is the feast of one of the Church’s most loved saints, one who is admired by people of many faiths and none: St Francis. I grew up in a town where St Francis was very important – we have a monastery of Third Order Brothers who educated most of the town’s boys and made major contributions to our town’s religious and civil life. When I was in school every year on this feast day there was a celebration – Mass certainly, and sometimes a half day off school. I grew up with a Franciscan spirituality, though I still do not understand why I did not become a Franciscan, but rather veered to Carmel. I was baptised on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, so perhaps my cards were already marked as far as heaven was concerned. That said, Francis always did, and continues to, fascinate me.
The celebration of St Francis by non-Catholics and an interesting article by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith in the Herald has led me to ponder on non-Catholic saints – those canonised by the Orthodox churches. In his article, Fr Alexander speaks about the Orthodox saint, Elizabeth of Russia, and the members of the Imperial family who were murdered by the Bolsheviks – they are honoured as martyrs and saints by many Orthodox. Where does the Catholic Church stand on these and others who have been raised to the altars? If the churches are finally reunited, will the Catholic Church recognise them officially, even those figures who displayed a hatred for Catholicism?
The question, I suppose, is academic in some sense, since the important thing here will be the formal reunion – and we pray for that! Discussing the issue some time ago with a friend, he said that the Church would probably make no statement on these saints at all, but rather let things continue as they are. Someone else said that we might look on them as if Beati with their cults in the East.
Among these Orthodox saints are some most extraordinarily holy people who have a lot to teach us. Seraphim of Sarov (c 1754-1833), who has devotees in the Catholic Church among them Blessed John Paul II, was unquestionably a Saint. St Seraphim taught the people of his time that holiness was for everyone and encouraged them to seek it, teaching them the way of virtue and sanctity. St Seraphim is a Saint who could be included in the Catholic General Calendar given his significance.
Elizabeth Romanova (1864-1918), or St Elizabeth of Russia, mentioned in Fr Alexander’s article, seems also to have been a most remarkable woman. A granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, she was married to a Russian Grand Duke and, following his murder in 1905 she became a nun and lived a holy life until the Bolshevik Revolution when she was murdered. She was killed for her Christian faith, so she is a martyr. Again here is a Saint who might well deserve inclusion on the General Calendar, the example of a noble woman who left all to serve Christ and then paid the ultimate price for her devotion to him. Her maid, Varvara, who joined the same convent as Elizabeth and was known all her life for her deep piety, was also martyred by the Bolsheviks and was canonised.
The Imperial family are in an interesting situation: are they martyrs at all? Fr Alexander says that the sanctity of the children cannot be doubted; by this he seems to exclude Nicholas and Alexandra whose situation is not as clear. Personally I would have doubts about the Tsar and his wife and I think they died for the same reason as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France – it was political, not religious. Besides, the Tsarina Alexandra, in particular, raises some serious questions given her devotion to Rasputin. But were the children martyred too? Were they murdered because of their adherence to the Christian faith, or simply because they were the children of the Tsar?
The Orthodox Church struggled with this issue, in the end they canonised the Romanovs as “passion-bearers” – those who face death with resignation in a Christ-like way. This category of saint exists in the Orthodox Church: I suppose the closest in the Catholic Church would be a Confessor, but that category describes one who suffered for the faith with serenity in life though was not killed: yet for the beatification of a Confessor heroic virtue is required. We do not have a category of person who died with forbearance and we do not canonise them since, again, we look for either heroic virtue or genuine martyrdom.
An interesting snippet of information: killed with the Imperial family, and canonised with them, were a number of their servants including one who was a Catholic, their footman Alexei Trupp. Another murdered servant, also canonised, was a Lutheran. In Catholic Church we cannot beatify or canonise non-Catholics but seems the Orthodox can. That leads us to another interesting question: will the Orthodox recognise our Saints? St Josaphat and Blessed Vincent Lewoniuk may prove problematic. Anyway, at this point the issue is academic, but interesting.
In the meantime, we shall celebrate Francis today. Mass, yes, but what about a half day off work? Ah, how tempting!