A new collection claims many old saints are 'distinctly unhelpful' and offers some alternatives. I'm unpersuaded

Reading some of the entries in Robert Ellsberg’s fat book, Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses (Liturgical Press) has given me much food for thought and not a little indigestion. His idea is to provide a saintly model for every day of the year; altogether it adds up to 753 pages, not including the introduction and index. As lives of the saints are or should be required reading for Catholics, such anthologies generally inspire me, but not this time.

I am entirely with Ellsberg when he writes in the introduction that “It is holiness and not canonisation that is the goal of Christian life”. We can all agree that there are countless men and women in heaven who have not been raised to the altars; some, such as Dorothy Day and Blessed John Henry Newman, are in the pipeline for eventual canonisation; others, quiet, humble, self-giving persons that we have all met, never will be.

It is when Ellsberg states that he has included people “who clearly fall outside the official criteria for sainthood”, that many old saints “are distinctly unhelpful in responding to our present needs” and this is “all the more reason to take a broader view”, that I begin to wonder what he is on about.

The entries for the months provide the answer. Alongside wonderful saints that Catholics know and love, Ellsberg has included great artists, poets and musicians, such as Giotto, John Donne and Mozart. These are a rather random collection of the anthologist’s personal favourites. Of course I hope that the sublime Mozart and the magnificent Michelangelo are in heaven, though it hasn’t occurred to me to pray to them or to regard them as “saintly witnesses”.

My real objection comes when I find the names of Teilhard de Chardin, Anthony de Mello, Karl Rahner, Bernard Häring, and others included. Whatever their status beyond this world, in their lives they were regarded as controversial authors, even as dissenters from traditional Catholic teaching.

Other names on Ellsberg’s list – Oscar Schindler, Henry Thoreau, Thomas Merton, Raoul Wallenberg, Maisie Ward – are worthy people who did good things; but saintly witnesses?

I am reminded of the comment made by that fine Polish poet and Nobel Prize-winner, Czeslaw Milosz, when reading Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest in 1938 in Poland, during a time of personal sorrow: he wrote that the novel “confronted the problem of holiness which, despite the promises of cheerful purists, is borne in torment, and borders on darkness and abyss.”