Grunwald's 'Saint' -- only God knows

November 30, 2003|By Ray Holton | Ray Holton,Special to the Sun

A Saint, More or Less, by Henry Grunwald. Random House. 236 pages. $23.95.

In the quarter-century reign of Pope John Paul II, admission to sainthood appears to be a tool aimed at energizing the world's 900 million Roman Catholics. He has recognized more than 470 saints and proclaimed more than 1,300 other candidates for sainthood in beatification ceremonies.

Along the way to breaking the records of all previous popes in the saint-naming business, Pope John Paul has changed some of the rules. In the case of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, he waived the requirement that five years must elapse after a prospect's death before the process to sainthood begins. He beatified Mother Teresa in October 2003. In 1983, he eliminated the prosecutorial role of a "Devil's Advocate."

All of this, of course, has initiated great debate within the church: Does saint-inflation devalue the honor? At the risk of contributing to saint-inflation, Henry Grunwald makes a skeptic's case for a saint from 16th- / 17th-century France. In A Saint, More or Less, Grunwald produces an engaging historical novel that raises questions about faith and its consequences. Even for non-Catholics, the book is made compelling by Grunwald's crisp and provocative writing style. He was the managing editor of Time magazine from 1968 to 1977 before advancing to editor-in-chief of all of Time Inc.'s publications.

In this book, Grunwald creates a profound story of sainthood dealing with personal struggle against a backdrop of religious wars and intolerance. In 17th-century France, there was a fine line between religiosity and witchcraft and when fanatical leaders judged the line to have been crossed, maniacal mobs meted out deadly punishments.

Grunwald's story is about two women, one of whom is currently well on her way to sainthood. Madame Barbe Acarie married a Paris aristocrat, Pierre Acarie, who supported her ambition to live a religious life, active with the Catholic hierarchy and charity works. She persuaded King Henry IV to allow the contemplative Car-melites of Saint Teresa to establish convents in France. In fact, after her husband's death, she joined the nunnery as Marie of the Incarnation. She died in 1618, and 173 years later was beatified by Pope Pius VI, just three years before many Carmelite nuns were martyred in the Reign of Terror.

Grunwald artfully takes this strip of history and lays it alongside the life of another real-life woman who seemingly also had the potential for sainthood. Nicole Tavernier came to Paris on a mission for God. Working to make a difference on the streets of Paris, she eventually rose to fame with the help of her mentor, Madame Barbe.

But Grunwald's close inspection of both lives lets readers consider whether the deeds and faith of the younger Nicole should have merited the recognition that Madame Barbe received.

In a time when the pope is putting sainthood center-stage in world Catholicism, Grunwald provides a case study for the contemplative and a good tale for the rest of us. In the end, he leaves us to decide whether "Only God knows who his saints are."

Ray Holton, retired editor of The Morning Call in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, contemplates history and religion at his home in Bethlehem, Pa.

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