Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Saint of the Month: St. Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena

St. Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena

AKA: María Laura Montoya Upegui, Mother Laura
Feast Day: October 21.

Really Existed? Definitely.
Timeframe: 1874-1949.
Place: Colombia.

Credentials: Canonized by Pope Francis in 2013.
Martyrdom: None.

Patron Saint of: People suffering from racial discrimination, Orphans.
Symbolism: None.

To many of us, Saints seem like figures from deep history, but that's not always true. Pope John Paul II canonized some 483 saints, more than five times the number of any other Pope since the 16th century. Most of them were from the modern era, broadly speaking. John Paul II himself has since become a saint. His feast day is tomorrow, October 22! This is hardly a secret -- 800,000 people packed into Rome for the ceremony of his canonization -- but it is still deeply counterintuitive to some of us who are not tied into day-to-day religious practice.

It was Pope Francis, the man currently holding the office, who canonized St. Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena. When you look her up, a feeling that her conceptual distance from you and I is palpably different from that of the ancient saints is immediately evident. For instance, there are plenty of pictures of her.

With so many of the saints, it is unclear how much history is preserved in their legends, if there is any real history at all. With St. Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena, the essential biography is so substantiated as to feel a bit prosaic. She was born in Colombia on May 26, 1874, as María Laura Montoya Upegui. She studied to be a teacher. She wanted to be a nun. She became interested in Native American issues, and became a missionary and advocate. In 1914 she founded the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Siena. Something of her stance within Catholicism can be divined from an article released the Catholic News Agency:
Mother Laura composed for her "daughters" a directory and other writings... to help them understand better their call to serve God among the Indians, and to live a balance between apostolic and contemplative life. She taught by example the "pedagogy of love" as the only way to teach the Indians, the way which allowed access into their heart and culture to bring them Jesus Christ.
She was wheelchair bound towards the end of her life, and died on October 21, 1949.

So, here we have someone who was by all accounts very kind, who made great sacrifices to combat prejudice, and who was undeniably pious. You may or may not see some ambiguities in missionary outreach to Native peoples, but it is certain that she was doing what she felt was right, and what her religious institution asked of her. And so, she seems pretty saintly, does she not?

But that is not quite everything. To be a full-fledged saint, you must be credited with two miracles. And this is where things get potentially awkward, if you don't believe in miracles. Do you believe in miracles? I don't. And if I did, I would find them deeply, deeply troubling on a theological level. Which is beside the point, but I just mention it to indicate how uncomfortable I get when I read passages like this:
The beatification miracle involved the 1994 cure of an 86-year-old woman with uterine cancer.... The canonization miracle involves the healing of Dr. Carlos Eduardo Restrepo, who was suffering from lupus, kidney damage and muscular degeneration. After praying to Blessed Laura, the doctor was said to be completely cured.

Now, I rejoice for the recovery of Dr. Restrepo, who sounds like a nice guy. I'm sure that his religious faith helped him through his sickness, which is awesome. But for purposes of canonization, we are asked to believe that he asked the late Ms. Upegui for help, and she put in a good word for him with God, who then transgressed his own physical laws in order to keep Dr. Restrepo in this mortal vale of tears. Also, because this occurance is being used to substantiate Mother Laura's claim specifically, the bare minimum of rigor requires us to assume that he prayed to her alone, and not to any other saints or to God or Jesus directly. Otherwise, there would be no reason to assume that it was her specifically who was instrumental in the cure. But of course, he doesn't really make that claim. He would be fibbing if he did.

I am sure Dr. Restrepo accepts his miraculous recovery in good faith. But as part of this package, I wonder if he doesn't think from time to time about how disturbing it is that God would have behaved so capriciously in his particular case. Through the sustainence of his life here on Earth, after all, he has been kept from his promised union with God, possibly for a great many decades. Is it really fair that he has been singled out for this punishment, and if so is it fair to implicate Sister Laura in his misfortune?

Well, I am sure that the lay of the religious land looked far different to St. John Paul II and Pope Francis. It probaby looks rather different to you as well. My main point is only this: that from out in the grandstands, where I sit, it is easy to be comfortable with the semi-legendary saints of long ago. It is a lot harder to get my head around a saint who lived in our own times.

Having said that, I wish you a very happy feast of St. Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena.

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