Column: How do we know she wasn’t a saint?

The first of four reflections on the role of the Aquinos in the life of the nation. Published on August 4, 2009, three days after Cory Aquino’s death.

In a balanced piece he wrote for Global Post, colleague and good friend Caloy Conde cast the extraordinary reaction to the death of Cory Aquino in religious terms. “She was the closest the Philippines ever had to a living saint. And when she died on Saturday, from colon cancer at the age of 76, Filipinos grieved as though they had just lost one.”

I can readily agree with the second assertion; the first, however, needs qualifying. Surely we have had living saints before, in the sense that Caloy described and that Cory would have understood: a person with a saintly reputation. (My own list would include two exemplary religious three centuries apart: Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo, the founder of the RVM Sisters, and Benigno Dagani, a Jesuit missionary in Mindanao.)

The core assumption behind Caloy’s use of the phrase, as I understand it, is perception: Cory was perceived by many to have the qualities of a saint. This emphasis on wide reputation makes sense, in the light of an intriguing note I also read on Facebook, readily dismissing the possibility that Cory was a saint.

How do we know she wasn’t?

I am not about to begin a cause for Cory’s canonization (the new rules stipulate a waiting period of “at least five years” after the death). I am certainly no expert on saints, my perspective merely being that of an ordinary layman. But how do we know that Cory was not, in fact, a saint?

Before I answer my own question, let me introduce a passage from a column written the day Cory died by another colleague and friend, Patricia Evangelista. “I write this to celebrate a hero, not a saint. Saints are touched by the hand of God, they do no wrong, they are faultless, full of the light of heaven—but they belong behind glass cases, painted eyes lit by Christmas lights, of little use in a country where every man is a sinner because he lives. Heroes make themselves. They are human, their faults are their own, and their extraordinariness is not in their perfection, but in their struggle.”

I do not think that Pat meant to say that Cory was no saint; only that she preferred to write about her as a hero. My interest is in the assumption Pat brings to her argument: that saintliness is perfection. If the people the Catholic Church comes to canonize did “no wrong,” were “faultless” and “full of the light of heaven,” then Pat would be right: they would really be “of little use” to sinners like us. But who says saintliness is perfection?

The irrepressible Teresa of Avila, a born builder who could not keep her opinions to herself; the avid Augustine, who famously prayed for “chastity, but not yet”; the disputatious Paul, who wrestled with the demon of self-righteousness; the impulsive Peter, who in his impulsiveness denied Christ thrice—the roll of saints is a record of the very struggle that Pat sees in heroes: persons “making themselves,” who “are human,” whose “faults are their own,” and yet who are able to fashion “extraordinariness” out of their “struggle.”

In other words, she offers us a false choice, between perfect saint and struggling hero.

If saintliness were perfection, then saints would be useless to the Church. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read: “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.” How can saints be models if their experience is (to use Pat’s rhetorical pairing) one of perfection, not of struggle? Morality is nothing if it isn’t pragmatic—that is, concerned with the nitty-gritty of real life.

Perhaps the real reason Pat considers “hero” more appropriate to describe Cory with than “saint” can be found at the start of her compelling column. Pat adverts to the Hacienda Luisita killings in 2005: “I know how many men died during the massacre in 2005, know how the Aquino administration failed to give their farmers their due, know how much can be laid at the feet of a dead President and her family. I had thought it would be difficult to write this today, knowing what I know of Hacienda Luisita, looking over old interviews with Federico Laza, the father who saw his son shot before his eyes.”

Again, I do not think that Pat meant to say that the devout Cory was only a hero; only that it was difficult to think of her as a saint.

But how much of the crisis in Luisita, exactly, can be laid at the feet of Cory? The note on Facebook I read also implied that, because there was both good and bad in Cory’s presidency, the bad mostly having to do with her perceived failure to transcend class interests, she could not be a saint.

There is a temptation to damn Cory for her wealth—as though it were impossible for the rich to become saints. That would impoverish the Church (poor pun intended), for it would then have to do without Thomas Aquinas, or Francis of Assisi, or Francis Borgia.

My point: Any talk of saintliness would have to take into account the Church’s own rules, and Cory’s interior life.

In the end, that’s what we are left with: abundant evidence of the democratic icon’s profound spiritual life—the constant prayer, the simplicity of faith that showed itself in the way she related to people, the unwavering conviction that fate was God’s own, sometimes inscrutable will.

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