The Lure of Saints:
A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition
by Jon Sweeney
Paraclete Press, 2005
review by John Tintera
As Jon Sweeney reminds us, the Protestant aversion to the veneration of saints comes out of a good place. Idolatry was chief among the sins enumerated by Moses in the Decalogue and because of that became the prime focus of the early Reformers. A great many beliefs and practices of ancient and medieval Christianity were rooted out during the Reformation under the rubric of idolatry. With the perspective of hindsight, it’s possible to see that some of these practices, like the selling of indulgences, were truly anti-Christian, while others were evil in so far as they had lost their original power to draw people closer to God. The Lure of Saints seeks to reintroduce Protestants to the fullness of the spirituality of the saints—as Catholics understand it—while at the same time giving a rational understanding of sainthood’s biblical underpinnings in order to cleanse it of its idolatrous taint.
Sweeney opens the book with the story of his own conversion to love of the saints. As a young Baptist studying the Bible in Chicago, Sweeney was drawn to images of the saints on display in the Art Institute. “[I] had been raised in the kind of fundamentalism that dispensed with all symbols, but nevertheless, I found myself drawn only to paintings of saints.” Traveling through Europe and other American cities, he began to consciously seek out paintings of the Christian heroes—pausing briefly at the Mona Lisa in order to linger at Giotto’s frescoes of St. Francis of Assisi at the Louvre.
In the following chapters, Sweeney marshals a plethora of arguments in defense of the saints. Speaking as a Protestant to Protestants, he introduces readers to the Catholic imagination that makes worship of saints possible; he provides a brief overview of the canonization process in the Catholic church; and he elucidates the function of the saints in the life of the believer. According to Sweeney, the reason why Protestants have so many objections to the saints is because of an overreaching rationalism. With the saints come too many works of wonder and miracles, too many happy martyrdoms, too many repetitious prayers, too much, too much. One by one, Sweeney names these objections and seeks to provide an answer and an antidote. But ultimately, for Sweeney, the worship of the saints comes down to necessity. He writes, “‘Why do you need all that extra stuff,’ an evangelical Christian friend recently asked me when I told her about the book I was writing... ‘Why isn’t the grace of God enough for you?’…. I told her she was talking about salvation—being sure that you’ve got it. I was talking about moving on, after salvation, and finding deeper ways of building a relationship with God.”
St. Paul gave us the metaphor of the human body to understand the communion of the saints. Apart from this wonderful image, probably the best way into the world of the saints is through Francis of Assisi. Not surprisingly, prior to writing The Lure of Saints, Sweeney published two books on the ragtag friar. Since Apostolic times, Francis stands out as the saint most able to reflect not just one aspect of the body of Christ, but the full life and message of the Savior—down to the stigmata of the Passion. Through Francis’ life of simplicity and fearlessness, many Protestants have been introduced to the concept of “Imitation of Christ.” The Catholic concept of the saints is inclusive of imitation, but goes well beyond it. For Catholics, the entire idea of holiness is bound up with the saints. Indeed, Catholics call holiness “the science of the saints,” and all saints—from Peter and Paul to Mother Teresa of Calcutta—are scientists of holiness. Sweeney appreciates this and is fearless in his pursuit of all things related to the saints, from the saying of novenas and praying to St. Anthony for lost objects, to veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Sweeney admits that, because of his upbringing, he is not able to fully enter into the kind of effortless belief in all of the paraphernalia and accoutrements attached to the worship of the saints. Nevertheless, he is aware of their power and open to their blessing. The funny thing about a book like the The Lure of Saints is that it often does not reach its stated audience or perform the purported duties its author professes. The problem with pushing something like the saints onto a person to whom this concept is totally foreign (or worse, hostile) is that no amount of sound reasoning will change his or her mind. But, as is less often true with this sort of book, The Lure of Saints is so well researched, written, and in this case lived by the author that it is an invaluable resource for those already committed to the path illuminated by the saints. And should an open-minded person stumble onto it, there’s little doubt he or she will at least gain a greater sympathy. Hence, Catholics and Protestants alike should rejoice in this book. One only wonders what’s next from Mr. Sweeney. Might we hope for a book addressed to Catholics that elucidates the distinctive and profound assets still to be found in the insights of the Reformers? Indeed, the ecumenical value of a book like The Lure of Saints cannot be overstated.
Read an excerpt
Copyright ©2005 John Tintera