Keeping Saints Alive

St. Isadore of Seville as "the patron saint of the Internet." He showed a picture of Isadore with a laptop.

Saints are revered by the faithful, and honored informally by anyone who sings "When the Saints Go Marching In." But how much do most of us really know about the saints and how they became Saints? Those are some of the questions Martha Teichner will be exploring in our Easter Sunday Cover Story:

Have you ever heard the story of St. Lawrence?

"Those rotten Roman emperors tortured him by putting him on the grill, and he said, 'Turn me over, I'm done on this side!'" said writer San Kelly.

"Uh huh, barbecued," added writer Rosemary Rogers. "He's the patron saint of barbecue chefs, another little tongue-in-cheek Vaticanism."

In early Christianity, dying a horrible martyr's death was the principle prerequisite for sainthood, the more gruesome the better.

"My money goes to Bartholomew, who was flayed alive," recalled Rogers. She said Bartholomew, who lived, carried his skin around.

Kelly nominated Erasmus of Formiae, a.k.a. Elmo, who "had his insides taken out on a wheel."

There's a name for people like Rogers and Kelly:

"St. Bridget taught a fox to dance. St. Bridget used to hang her clothes on a sunbeam," said Kelly.

"I pray to St. Anthony but I always wear a St. Anne medal because I'm a mother and a grandmother and she's the patron saint of mothers and grandmothers," said Rogers.

Rogers and Kelly are hagiographers, meaning writers of saints' biographies.

They also happen to be humorists.

Sean Kelly was one of the editors of the National Lampoon.

Kelly described St. Isadore of Seville as "the patron saint of the Internet." He showed a picture of Isadore with a laptop.

Rogers showed off her saints cards, including a "very excellent" Saint Don Bosco. "Kind of a good-looking guy, too."

Teichner asked Rogers to tell her about St. Martha:

"She was very robust, liked working around the house, gardening, and also had a very fierce side where she could battle dragons." Not bad!

Their book is called - what else - "Saints Preserve Us."

"The expression, said Rogers, "probably came from those early movies, the very early talkies that came out in the '30s with the characters Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. O'Brien and they were always saying 'Saints preserve us.'"

Which is, more or less, what saints are supposed to do.

"Saints are like lobbyists in heaven," Kelly said. "You can't get through to the powers that be always, because, let's face it, God is busy. How do you get through to him? Well, your saint has access."

If you stand in St. Peter's Square in Rome, you're surrounded by saints . . . 140 enormous saint statues, dating from as far back as the mid-1600s, not long after the Vatican finally gained complete control over the process of making saints.

For more than a thousand years before, local bishops had just created their own, often more legendary than legitimate. How many saints are there?

"It's impossible to say, actually," said Monsignor Robert Sarno. "Even the word itself, 'canonization,' comes from the Latin canon, which means the List. It's a list of saints, but we really don't know how many are on this list officially."

If somebody is proposed for sainthood, Sarno is one of the Vatican officials who investigates claims.

So who qualifies?

"People who have lived such an heroic life of virtue or who have died as martyrs that they are imitatable," he said.

Sarno's office is at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The cause of a would-be saint can be a little like a political campaign, a matter of how powerful and well-funded his or her supporters are.

In 2002 Spaniard Josemaria Escriva was canonized just 27 years after his death, a modern-day speed record, in spite of the fact that as founder of Opus Dei, a group within the Catholic Church critics consider secretive and cult-like, Escriva is controversial.

Likewise, the cause of Pope Pius XII continues to move forward although he, too, is controversial - his vocal opposition claiming he was anti-Semitic, that he failed during World War II to speak out against the Holocaust.

To become a saint, you have to be dead at least five years to get the process started, although for some especially holy people (Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II) the waiting period has been waived.

There's no getting around the rule that you have to be responsible for at least two miracles. This (surprise, surprise) is hard for investigators to prove.

"Sometimes you know, we're called upon to do a CSI investigation," said Sarno, "especially in cases, for example, of miracles, where you actually have to put down on paper, you know, dates and times of different medical treatments, medicines given, when people started to pray, where did they pray, what happened, what did they do."

Until recently, would-be saints were literally put on trial. The lawyer assigned to argue against a candidate was commonly known as "the devil's advocate."

Pope John Paul II changed all that The devil's advocate? Gone. Instead of lawyers making a case for sainthood, now it's historians. John Paul canonized two of the nine American saints.

After streamlining the process, he turned saintmaking into an industry, naming more saints than any previous pope . . . 482.

The whole point was to promote diversity, to provide people all over the world saints relevant to their own lives, who looked like them.

Artist J. Michael Walker found 103 Los Angeles streets named for saints and wondered, what's in a name? Such as Santa Clara St in the southeastern part of downtown. "It's in an area that you probably never would want to come to," Walker said, "used mainly as a shortcut for people to get to the freeway."

Walker shows us "Thomas's Guide to Streets With Saints Names, "the trusty source that we always use to find where we're going in Los Angeles. There's, like, 15 columns of streets named for saints.

"I was surprised by how often and how profoundly the story of the saint connected and commented in some way upon what happened on the street bearing her name or his name," he said.

For ten years Walker has been painting those connections.

Santa Clara Street has the personality, he said, of Santa Clara, the patron saint of embroiderers. "You had the sweatshops there."

He's also photographed people as part of his street studies. ""This is a young man I met and photographed on Skid Row, on San Julian Street, when I began doing work on all the saints back in mid-2000, and I call him Beato . . . blessed."

Beato lives in a clinic for the homeless and mentally ill on San Julian Street: "San Julian was himself homeless for many years, and then he acquired the ability to take care of himself and others."

In time Walker began to see the people he met on L.A. saint streets as the saints themselves.

"They're essentially everyone around us," he said. "They're not gods; they're people."

Which is how he happened to paint Saint Stephanie.

"Stephanie Raygosa," Walker said, "was a nine-year-old girl who was in the third grade, she was caught in the crossfire when she was playing in her front yard on her scooter."

No, Stephanie Raygosa was never canonized by the pope. But to J. Michael Walker, this small victim of a drive-by shooting surely is a saint.

"Her killing inspired the mothers in her community to organize for the first time, and most of them were not even Snglish speakers," Walker said. "But they got the violence stopped.

"When her funeral mass occurred and my drawing, my painting was brought in, her family had a prayer read that said, 'God bless her killers, may we learn to forgive them.' And I thought, that's a miracle for anyone to be able to say something like that on the heels of this horrible tragedy."

So who's to say she doesn't fit the definition of a saint, with miracles to prove it?

For more info:
"Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You'll Ever Need" by Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers (Random House)