Every once in a while, you’ll come across someone who giggles at the Catholic practice of honoring a saint on the day of his death, rather than on the day of his birth. They assume this means that Catholics are creepy and morbid (which, okay, is kind of true) or that Catholics are metal and hardcore (which is also sometimes true). Or that Catholics are just kind of weird (which is definitely true).
Of course the real reason we venerate a saint on the day of his death is that it is his birth day: The day of his birth into eternal life.
I was thinking of this when someone posted a prayer request for a friend battling cancer. She mentioned the name of the patron saint of cancer patients, and it suddenly occurred to me how strange that is: The patron saint died of cancer, and that’s how she became the one we pray to when we want someone to survive cancer. Kind of weird!
There is not, as far as I can tell, any official system for how a saint acquires patronage, but it’s common for them to become the patron saint of the thing that killed them (or of people dealing with the thing that killed them). They’re often portrayed with the thing that killed them — a wheel, a sword — perhaps giving the impression that that thing is what they set out to make their life about. “Hey, it’s-a me, the axe in the head guy!” they seem to say.
But of course it’s the Catholics left behind after their death who decided that that would be Their Main Thing. This is clearly related to the idea that their feast day is the day they died. If it was cancer that killed them, then cancer is the thing that freed them from mortality and let them enter into eternal life. If it was leprosy that killed them, then leprosy was their ticket to heaven. And so on.
Or is that it? I think this view misses the mark and makes Catholics into the morbid, death-loving ghouls we’re sometimes accused of being. If Catholics were 100 per cent on board with the idea that the thing that kills you is the best thing that ever happened to you, then why would we, for instance, ask the patron saint of cancer patients to intercede for the healing of cancer patient?
Because that is what we do: We don’t pray, “O dear Saint Mervintrude, patron of wheelbarrows, my friend is in the hospital after having been run over by a rogue wheelbarrow. Please let him die soon.” Instead, we pray, “Please restore him to life and health.”
So which is it? Do Catholics yearn for a holy death in the company of saints who also died that way, or do Catholics look for escape from death through the intercession of saints who didn’t escape?