This week, Pope Francis has declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new kind of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’ (oblatio vitae). There is no surprise in learning that this is a true pattern of holiness! Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. What is surprising is that until now, the prayers the church uses to honour saints have not recognised this.
Open an official Catholic prayer book – the Missal used for Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and religious order members use for their daily prayers – and you will find many ‘Commons’ for honouring different categories of saint.
Among the martyrs there are special prayers for those killed for defending their virginity. Among the ‘confessors’ (or ‘holy men and women’) there are subcategories for those who worked for education or in service of the poor. There are ‘virgins’, ‘pastors’ (ordained to at least the rank of priest) and ‘apostles’ (a closed category, though last year St Mary Magdalen’s feast day was upgraded to recognise her as ‘apostle to the apostles’.)
Yet no existing category quite fits in the case of a holy person who makes a deliberate choice to lay down their life for another. This problem came to the fore in the case of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe, founder of Franciscan friaries and a prolific evangelist through his expert use of the printing press. At the end of a life already remarkable for its holiness, Kolbe was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and stepped forward to offer his life in place of a Jewish man, a father of children, who was chosen to be executed. Kolbe proved difficult to starve, and eventually died by lethal injection; the man he offered his life for lived to be liberated at the end of the war.
When Blessed Kolbe was proposed for canonisation, Pope John Paul II faced intense lobbying from Germany and Poland to declare him a martyr. But was he a martyr? Had he been killed specifically because of anyone’s hatred of Christian faith? There was no evidence that the camp guards had targeted his beliefs – they had simply accepted his offer to lay down his life for someone else. John Paul II commissioned two officials to consider the matter, whose opinion was that Kolbe was not a martyr – but ultimately the Pope overruled them and canonised St Maximilian while wearing red vestments.
A similar question can be asked in the case of the ‘martyr of life’ St Gianna Beretta Molla. An Italian physician, she was diagnosed with a serious condition while pregnant. She faced a choice between one kind of surgery almost certain to save her, but with a high chance of triggering a miscarriage; or another kind which was safe for the baby but less sure to resolve her condition. She chose the latter, gave birth safely, but died of complications soon after. She, too, would seem to fit this category of laying down one’s life for another.
It will be interesting to see what steps follow the announcement of this new category. Are such saints to be celebrated using red vestments, or using white? Will there be new Commons to add to the Missal and Divine Office? Will existing saints like Maximilian Kollbe and Gianna Molla be assigned to the new category?
Overall, this does seem like a necessary addition to the way the church classifies her saints and honours them in prayer. Perhaps once this is tidied up, some other missing categories can be filled out – men honoured specifically for their virginal purity, and women who, though not ordained pastors, are recognised as Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, Holy Saints offering the Gift of Life – pray for us!