Currently, there are some African-American holy people who are being considered for canonization in the Catholic Church. This is a formal process during which their lives are examined very closely.
There are four major steps: (1) Usually, at least 5 years after the person's death, unless the Pope makes an exception, a request for canonization is made to the Bishop of the Diocese in which the person died. The request contains examples of the person's living a holy life and lists reasons for considering canonization. The person is now named a “Servant of God.” Sr. Thea Bowman is one of the African-American holy people at this stage right now.
(2) During the second stage, the Bishop sends a formal report and request to Rome where nine theologians read the material and determine whether or not to go forward with the process by the study of the person’s writings and other aspects of his or her life to make sure the person was faithful to the teachings and practices of the Church. There is even one person called, a “devil’s advocate,” who is charged with asking questions that may reveal a reason the candidate is not qualified to be considered a saint. If the candidate is approved by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, he or she is declared “Venerable.”
(3) The third stage is beatification. If a person was a martyr, he or she may be beatified and called “Blessed.” Otherwise, a miracle must be attributed to the intercession of the candidate. Once a person is named “Blessed,” he or she may be venerated or honored.
(4) The fourth stage is canonization. This requires a second miracle attributed to the intercession of the candidate. The Prefect of the Congregation then sends the request for canonization to the Pope who makes the final decision. When the person is canonized, he or she is officially declared a “Saint” and the Pope offers a special Mass in honor of the newly canonized "Saint."
The reason the Church chooses to formally canonize certain people is to provide spiritual heroes and heroines for us to imitate in our own circumstances and times.
We all either personally know some saintly people, or at least have learned about them. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is a current example. After a life dedicated to family, the Civil Rights Movement, and more than three decades in the House of Representatives, he recently lost his battle with cancer. When announcing this death, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who knew him personally, gave him honor with the words: "Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress."
While I taught and served as a campus minister at Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically Black Catholic University in the United States, I attended the Black Catholic Institute one summer. Sr. Thea Bowman had helped to establish the Institute which provided classes on topics of interest and usefulness for Black people and others who worked among people of color.
Sr. Thea, who was a gifted, dynamic preacher, sometimes taught classes on preaching at Xavier. The summer I was there, one of the professors became ill and Sr. Thea was the substitute. I vividly recall one class. We had assembled in the chapel and were chatting among ourselves. I, and probably others, had not noticed that on one side of the chapel were seated black students, and on the other were mostly white students. When Sr. Thea arrived, she looked out on the class and noticed the situation. Before she began the class, we had to get up and mix with one another This was typical of Sr. Thea. She always tried to bridge the gaps between people of different races.
In 1937, Sr. Thea was born, Bertha Bowman, in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her grandfather had been born into slavery. Nevertheless, her father became a doctor and her mother a teacher. Raised in a Methodist home, she attended a Catholic School run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration from La Crosse, Wisconsin. At nine years old, with her parent's permission, she converted to the Catholic faith and later join the Congregation of her teachers.
As the only Black member in her all-white Community, Sr. Thea shared the beauty of her own culture through the years. Also, in her educational ministries from elementary school to university level, she inspired people with her deep spirituality which was evident from her inspirational talks and black sacred song. In 1987, Sr. Thea became instrumental in publishing a new Catholic hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal.
After sixteen years in education, Sr. Thea was invited by the Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi to become a consultant for intercultural awareness for his diocese. At this point, Sr. Thea was able to focus more on her mission to help people to appreciate their differences and maintain their cultural identities. With respect for her own traditions and those of others, Sr. Thea created a sense of fellowship among people of different races and religions.
When Sr. Thea was stricken with breast cancer, she continued to be an inspiration to others. As long as she could, she continued to give inspirational talks from a wheelchair, with a bare head and the assistance of a Sister friend. She had determined that she would live life fully until she died.
While bedridden, she counseled children whose parents were suffering from cancer that it was good to talk to their loved ones about what was going on. Sister was an inspiration at all times. When asked what she would like to be written on her gravestone, she simply said to put "I tried."
Shortly before she died, she spoke to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops, deeply touched by her talk, loudly applauded her. Led by Sr. Thea, they then stood linking arms and singing the spiritual: "We shall Overcome."
In an interview with Mike Wallace on a 60-minutes show, Sr. Thea said: "I think the difference between me and some people is that I'm content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make a change. But if each one would light a candle we'd have a tremendous light."
Let us strive like Sr. Thea to be bridges between all peoples in the troubled waters of our time.
Stephanie Morris, ASBS, Ph.D. Historian C.A.emerita
Sr. Thea Bowman said that she was willing to "do my little bit." Each of us can say that. Not all of us are famous or wealthy enough to be recognized as generous benefactors, but each of us can do our "little bit" to expand God's kingdom on earth. Mother Katharine prayed that she would "learn to know [Jesus] in the sanctifying prose of daily duties." Yes, even the mundane duties such as washing dishes or making a bed can be sanctifying if we offer our activities in a "Morning Offering," offering all we do to the glory of God.
The Christophers used to say: "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." We don't have to light the world but we can brighten up our little corner of it. We can do this by letting the light of God's love shine through our words and actions.
Pat Chiaffa, ASBS
Wow, Sr. Annette, you certainly gave us a bang for our buck with today’s blog! Thank you for outlining the steps involved in the Canonization process as well as giving us such touching insight into the life of Sr. Thea Bowman. It will be exciting to follow the progression of Sr. Bowman’s cause.
The “devil’s advocate” will be at a loss to find anything that would halt Sr. Thea’s proceeding through the “Servant of God” stage. I found it remarkable that she converted to Catholicism at only nine years of age. Indeed, she was a very special child, chosen and gifted with talents that God wanted her to share.
Sr. Bowman undoubtedly inspired countless individuals during her sixteen years as an educator. In her position as Consultant for Intercultural Awareness, she was able to impact an even greater community. I admire how she emphasized appreciation of cultural differences and respect for cultural traditions. This positive approach surely contributed to the successful creation of fellowship between people of different races and religions.
Her determination to “Live until she died” is very uplifting. Reactions to diagnoses of terminal illness are unique to individuals. Many people chose to retreat from the world to concentrate on getting affairs in order, on resting for maximum comfort, on surrendering to the twilight of the final season. Sr. Bowman’s choice to continue her life passion of addressing issues of social justice and inspiring others to follow the teachings of the church was a courageous response that certainly led many people to commit to living a more intentional life.
Additionally, the counsel she gave, while bedridden, to the children of parents suffering from cancer to have the dialogue that would bring closure to their family life was invaluable. She planted seeds of peace in the grieving hearts of those who followed her bedside advice.
It is easy to see how Sr. Thea inspired so many people. Her love of God and fellow man is so apparent. Her humility shines through in her comment, “I tried,” as the desired engraving on her gravestone. I sincerely believe that we will one day celebrate the canonization of St. Thea Bowman and that her life story will one day appear in the pages of Modern-Day Saints.