“Radical Saints: 21 Women for the 21st Century” by Melanie Rigney. Franciscan Media (Cincinnati, 2020). 139 pp., $16.99.
By Kathleen Finley
When we think of saints, “radical” may not be one of the first qualities that comes to mind, but they were, and are, true radicals because they go to the root — the meaning of radical — of the Gospel message.
In “Radical Saints” Melanie Rigney has chosen women who lived in the 20th century and were officially canonized in the 21st century. She features a wide variety of women, from those who are well known — like Teresa of Kolkata and Maria Faustina Kowalska — to many that almost none of her readers would have ever heard of.
For each woman she highlights a quality of radical faith and how she lived that out. For example, she talks about the quality of extending hospitality to all in Maria Natividad Venegas de la Torre, known as Madre Nati. She was a hospital administrator at a time of strong anti-Catholic attitudes in the Mexican government in the early 20th century and an uprising in response, which resulted in many deaths.
“The rebellion came to the hospital. But instead of engaging with the government soldiers in a way that would heighten the tension (and risk the hospital’s doors being closed), Madre Nati met them with courtesy and hospitality,” writes Rigney. “No one who needed attention was turned away, Catholic or non-Catholic, military or civilian. She and her sisters managed to save the Eucharist from desecration by carefully hiding it in their beehives. As a result of her efforts, the hospital remained open throughout the conflict.”
Another quality of radical faith is getting out of our comfort zone, as embodied in Katharine Drexel, an heiress who decided against the advice of her spiritual director to enter religious life. In 1889, she became a postulant in a religious order, and two years later she took her first vows.
“A year after that, she opened the first Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament convent in suburban Philadelphia, with a boarding school for African American children on the property. There was a bomb threat, but Katharine soldiered on,” the author says. “In the next 37 years, she and the other Blessed Sacrament sisters continued to persevere despite arson, threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and more.
“They established missions and schools for Native American and African American children as well as Xavier University in New Orleans, the United States’ only historically Black Catholic college.”
The women Rigney profiles are all remarkable, but by limiting her list to those who were officially canonized she inadvertently highlights the need for more inclusive and approachable models.
All but three on the list were women religious or contemplative nuns, some with quite extreme piety and penitential practices, and all the 13 others in her appendix also were in religious life. It may well be that religious communities have the resources to be able to go through the involved process of promoting the cause for canonization.
Rigney tries to address the lack of applicability to today’s lives by pairing each saint with a contemporary woman who is trying to live the same quality today, and this helps some.
Women of the 21st century definitely need models of holiness and spiritual strength in a challenging world; this book contributes to this purpose, but also highlights the need for more approachable and accessible lay saints for us all.
Kathleen Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including “The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace” and “Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses” and taught for many years in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.