It’s never too early to become holy. Yesterday, two admirable teenagers advanced a step closer to sainthood. One of them gives us an answer to a perennial problem of our human condition; the other offers a rather new one.
Saint-making in the Catholic Church is not really saint-making, per se. Only God makes saints; the Church, through her canonization process, recognizes some of that number of saints (beyond counting) and proposes them for the inspiration of the faithful. This process can be defended apologetically. Yet more fundamentally, this practice is part of the Catholic imagination or intuition about how things should be. Just as we prefer to live, our Christian lives in the company of fellow disciples who strengthen us along the way, so too do Catholics (and Orthodox and some streams of Protestantism) prefer to follow Christ with the active friendship of those already blessed in heaven.
From time to time the Vatican announces updates on various “causes” or candidates for sainthood. When a particular cause is accepted and a preliminary examination of the biographical record submitted along with evidence of a reputation for holiness, the candidate is given the title “Servant of God.”
An exhaustive investigation ensues, often taking years or decades, with witnesses – both for and against – convening until a multi-volume summary of the life is prepared. A judgment is then made about whether the candidate lived the “virtues to a heroic degree,” something that is only possible with divine grace. A positive judgement means that the candidate can be styled “venerable.”
Once the human judgement being is complete, before a candidate can be declared a saint, evidence of miracles worked through the intercession of the candidate – another exhaustive process – is required.
Yesterday the Vatican announced several causes that had been advanced to stage of heroic virtue. Most of the time candidates are somewhat obscure, not known beyond their local place. Even then the memory of them might have faded. Yet two of the candidates declared “venerable” yesterday are from our time and, more unusually, were very young.
Holiness is not a project left for later in life, after a misspent youth. It is never too soon to become holy. In fact, if life is short, it would be too late to wait even until adulthood to live discipleship to the full.
The two new “venerables” are Alexia González-Barros and Carlo Acutis. Alexia was born in 1971 in Madrid, Spain, and died at the age of 14 in 1985. Carlo was born twenty years later, in 1991 in London, England, and died at the age of 15 in 2006.
Alexia was a vibrant young girl from a devoutly Catholic family, stricken with cancer. Her treatments left her in excruciating pain, and required difficult surgeries that fitted her out with a metal “halo” drilled into her skull to stabilize her spine. Yes, a halo. She maintained a heroic cheerfulness throughout, her faith strengthened that she could, as St. Paul puts it, unite her sufferings with those of Christ for the sake of the Church (cf. Colossians 1:24).
As she lay sick and dying for months on end, those attending to her were convinced that they were witnesses to God making a saint before their eyes. Alexia and her family, faced the ancient problem of suffering, especially suffering of the young, with stalwart Christian faith.
Carlo Acutis also died of cancer. Born in 1991 to Italian parents then working in London, he returned to Italy with them as an infant. He was a typical, 21st-century teenage boy, with a love for all matters technological. He was passionate about sports and was such a computing expert, it was expected by all that he would go into some kind of computer engineering.
At the centre of Carlo’s life was the Eucharist, and he became fascinated by Eucharistic miracles throughout history. There are more of these miracles than one might think. Dozens and dozens in fact. So at the age of 11, Carlo set out to catalogue all the Eucharistic miracles of the world in a website. He managed to complete a comprehensive website in about three years, which has subsequently been updated since his death.
“The more we receive the Eucharist, the more we will become like Jesus, so that on this earth we will have a foretaste of Heaven,” wrote young Carlo. His devotion to the Eucharist marked his spiritual life, and even as his sickness advanced, he asked his parents to take him to shrines of Eucharist miracles.
It has been suggested that if Carlo is eventually canonized, he would be a good patron saint for the internet, having used it to spread devotion to the most important “thing” in the world, the Eucharist. Given the various and sundry evils to which the internet is put – from gossip to fraud to pornography – a young saint who used it for godly purposes would be much invoked.
Both Alexia and Carlo are unusual in that young saints are usually martyrs. For example, today – July 6th – is the feast day of St. Maria Goretti, an Italian girl of only 11 who was stabbed to death in 1902 for resisting the sexual advances of her teenage neighbour. In her final words, she forgave him and expressed a wish for his conversion, so that they could one day be together in heaven.
Her assailant, Alessandro, was imprisoned for thirty years, during which he did have a profound conversion that he attributed to Maria’s intercession. He became a devout Christian and model prisoner. In 1950, when Maria was canonized, Alessandro attended the ceremony in Rome, along with Maria’s mother. Upon leaving prison, Alessandro immediately went to see Maria’s mother to ask forgiveness.
“If God has forgiven you, and Maria has forgiven you, how could I not forgive you?” Maria’s mother responded.
Saints come in all ages and conditions of life and circumstances. Yet young saints are particularly attractive; a reminder that it is never too early to follow Christ.