In this single volume, Fr. Richard McBrien (Catholicism, Lives of the Popes) the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame provides a detailed and comprehensive catalog of over six-hundred saints and other "holy persons." Written in a style similar to his Lives of the Popes, McBrien offers readers a text that is accessible to a general audience, complete with an accommodating glossary, bibliography and index. Included in this edition are seven tables which provide advantageous data (such as feast days, a canonization chart, a time line of saints in history, saints portrayed in art, as well as patron saints) in a very convenient configuration.
Many of these aspects are not unique to books dedicated to the lives of the saints. However, there are two features that distinguish Fr. McBrien's volume from numerous other collections. First, he includes several chapters that provide a theological analysis and interpretation of sanctity, spirituality and the canonization process which address the importance of sainthood for individual believers as well as for the mission of the Church itself. Secondly, although the primary focus of the book are the lives of those who have been explicitly recognized by Catholic canonization, McBrien details and celebrates those who lived lives of heroic virtue but have not been conclusively recognized as "saint" by the Catholic Church. This provides the reader with brief descriptions of those inspiring (non-canonized) Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians whose lives were manifestations of "holiness in the concrete texture of ordinary human existence"(p. 8).
After his introductory time line, McBrien addresses the question, "Who is a Saint?" This section details the historical development of sainthood and the veneration of saints, in addition to a description of the categories and types of saints. At the end of this chapter are theological reflections on several important issues, such as: the diversity of saintly people, "There is no one way to be holy, even as a Christian" (p. 9), the healthiness (balance) of the saints, saints as sacraments, and a final section that addresses the need for the canonization process to more justly validate the number of married persons, the poor, visible minorities, and especially women, who have manifested heroic virtue.
The second part of the book is an overview of Catholic Christian spirituality. In it, McBrien provides a brief, yet not overly simplistic account of the major figures, movements and stages in the history of Catholic (ecumenically understood) tradition to present time.
Part three is a description of the practice of canonization in which McBrien details the evolution of the process that began as a proclamation made at the local level, to our contemporary situation which is characterized by the involvement and authority of the papacy. At the end of this section are two reflections that some readers may find controversial. The first questions and provides evidence against the infallible nature of canonization. McBrien asserts that the process of declaring an individual a saint is not without flaw and that not all recognized saints meet contemporary criteria. Following these interpretations, McBrien asserts that some of those that have been elevated to sainthood are "inappropriate models" based upon their "unhealthy attitudes towards their own bodies and toward the reality of sexual intimacy sanctified by the sacrament of marriage..." (p. 50). The second reflection addresses the politics (using influence to achieve an end) of canonization. McBrien acknowledges the time, persistence, lobbying and financial backing that are necessary for many causes to be successful. Such a system, he emphasizes, enables the wealthy and powerful to continue with causes while others lacking resources cannot. Providing examples of those causes he calls "overtly political," (which he asserts are the exception rather than the norm) McBrien expresses his concern (yet hope) about the integrity of the process of canonization.
The longest portion of the book, the individual accounts of the saints and other "historically significant holy persons... worthy of public veneration" follows. In it, McBrien sketches brief but insightful portraits of those in whom saintliness was "embodied and lived." Each is arranged according to the calendar year and conveniently cross referenced by date. As such, McBrien provides readers with a valuable and accessible medium for research and personal devotion. The epilogue reviews some major patterns or categories of saints and serves to reiterate the great diversity of spiritualities and expressions of sanctity. Each reader of Lives of the Saints will likely discover the absence of an individual they expected to be included in this volume, but because of the number of those potentially included, (nearly three thousand men and women have been canonized or beatified) the author has understandably left out figures that might have been otherwise included. This is especially true of those persons who are not a part of the Roman Calendar. However, it seems as though some of these omissions may have been theologically motivated. This sure to be viewed as one of the book's shortcomings. In addition, the use of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer to substantiate the politicized nature of the canonization process will certainly not go unnoticed. McBrien's concerns about the process are very reasonable, but based on the author's premise that there is no one way to be holy; Escriva was presented in an unforgiving light. Finally, it would have proved enlightening if McBrien had been able to present the lives of those non-Christians in a less abridged form, especially for readers who are not familiar with their inspiring stories.
One of the strongest aspects of the book is McBrien's ability as an ecclesiologist and scholar to provide a volume that inspires everyday holiness in its readers. The lives of the saints can be presented in a fashion that inflames within us a great awe but may not always provide us with models we are capable of or willing to imitate. McBrien's presentation of healthy models of Christian living demonstrates that sanctity is not an abstract concept or a futile ambition, rather it "confirm[s] us in the hope that holiness is an achievable goal." This volume reinforces the human vocation of holiness, calls for greater recognition of women, minorities, the poor and the married, and leaves the reader with a renewed appreciation of their individual call to be holy in their particular state of life. Recommended reading. < P>