What Does a Saint Look Like?

When Catholics think of someone in modern time who might be a saint, they seem to think first of all of a person wearing a religious habit or the collar, a sister, priest or pope, Mother Teresa, Msgr. Escriva, John Paul II.

It’s even the case with martyrs. Thanks to For Greater Glory, the movie, more U.S. Catholics may be aware of the cristeros today than when those heroes of the Faith were actually fighting and dying, and that can be seen as a positive development even if it is way too late. But who has been remembered all through the years? It hasn’t been the captured peasant-warriors strung up from telegraph poles in the old photographs. It has always been Bl. Father Miguel Pro, who was not actually a cristero but was a priest.

Apart from a few wonderful and inspiring exceptions — Bl. Emperor Karl comes to mind — why do Catholics today tend to associate sanctity with the religious or clerical state? Is it possibly because the majority of them lead lives so far from being Christian, and know it, that it’s hard for them to believe anybody can be a saint except someone who leads an entirely different kind of life, namely someone who takes religious or clerical vows? If so, it’s a strange situation, considering that most Catholics are not religious or clerics but everybody who gets into Heaven must be a saint. It is also striking inasmuch as the calendar of saints is replete with men and women whose state in life was other than religious or clerical. It even includes women who had been whores and men who had blood on their hands. In fact, which saint wasn’t once a sinner, if some less visibly than others?

The questions I’m asking occur to me because July 26 will be the sixtieth anniversary of the death at age 33 of a woman widely venerated in her homeland but whom few in the U.S. would regard as saintly. Indeed, I imagine readers, at least some of them, being disconcerted when I identify her. We are talking about Eva Peron, known to her fellow Argentines by the Spanish diminutive Evita.

Everybody has heard of her. She was one of the most famous women of the twentieth century, and the only one, at the time of her death, who wielded serious political power anywhere. That was at a time when the nation of Argentina, much more than today, was a player on the world stage.

If everybody has heard of her, doubtless what most in the U.S. think is of an actress who slept her way to power from one bed to another until she finally arrived in that of Juan D. Peron.

To be sure, there are Argentines who think of her the same way, but let me tell a little story. An acquaintance of mine is a physician at a major medical center here in the U.S. A couple of years ago an Argentine teenage girl was brought to the center for the treatment of a condition in which the hospital specializes. When my acquaintance went to the girl’s room to meet her and her parents, he observed four items on the patient’s bedside table: her rosary, a photograph of herself surrounded by her family, a statuette of Our Lady, and a picture of Evita.

If the woman was as most Americans imagine, little better than a whore, how account for it that nearly sixty years after her death a middle-class teenager, perhaps fighting for her life, was praying to “Santa Evita”?

I’ll venture to suggest that part of the answer, and supposing for a moment that the typical American’s idea of Evita is entirely accurate, is that the Latin American nations are Catholic, or once were, and ours never has been or ever had a chance it could be. Why it could not be is easily explained, but irrelevant here. The point is that in a Catholic society the sinful acts of human beings will be seen as simply sinful and therefore reparable, not as irredeemably evil, as they are apt to be regarded in a culture with historical roots sunk in Puritanism of any form, including the Jansenist.

Another reason is that the usual idea of Evita is far from entirely accurate. It may be that as a kid just arrived in Buenos Aires from the boonies and trying to break into show business, she came to know something of the proverbial casting couch, but there is no serious evidence she lived wantonly when she was in her maturity and certainly not after she and Juan Peron married. So where does the popular idea of her and, as far as that goes, of her husband come from? Why do so many think of them as they do?

It is to risk being diverted into the history of U.S. relations with Latin America, but the question is worth answering. Quite simply, during the time the Perons were in power and their Argentina was one of the world’s leading nations, Gen. Peron openly and often spoke of offering to the Western Hemisphere a model of development other than that of “North America,” meaning the U.S. This antagonized powerful U.S. interests who saw Latin America’s future limited to being a source of inexpensive raw materials and a market for the goods the U.S. would produce from them (we were still a manufacturing nation in those days). Peron, in other words, was offering a rival vision. Therefore, it was not surprising that he was soon routinely described by U.S. news media as a dictator and his and Evita’s government as “fascist”. (This in much the way that prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was portrayed as a new Hitler with weapons of mass destruction.)

At the same time, the salacious stories about Evita began to circulate and then were embroidered by the generals who overthrew Juan Peron three years after her death. Subsequently, the picture was enlarged by sensationalist biographers and perhaps fixed forever by the 1980s musical Evita and the movie version of it with Madonna that will probably remain a cable movie-channel staple as long as Madonna keeps going.

Lost in the picture was something important. It may be difficult for young persons today to realize, but Communism was an extremely powerful political force in the formerly Christian West during the first years after World War II. Communists came close to taking power in France. The same danger was serious enough in Italy that Ven. Pope Pius XII felt obliged to decree that Catholics who voted for the party would be subject to automatic excommunication. Communists in Argentina were also a threat, largely through their control of key sectors of the organized labor movement.

The Perons, thanks mainly to Evita, eliminated the threat. They wrested control from Communists where they exercised it and transformed the entire labor movement into their own power base. As Anne Carroll concludes in her unique history text for Catholic high-school students, Christ in the Americas, the Perons should be credited, if nothing else, for keeping Argentina from going Communist.

Even as that achievement was ignored in the U.S., Evita’s efforts to spread Argentina’s wealth to the working class and poor and just to plain help them would be, and still is, misrepresented.

In terms of government action, the Perons set up Latin America’s first social security system a mere decade after one was established in the U.S. (China, that economic powerhouse, still lacks one). In this country, the action was presented as a cynical move to buy the support of the working class, as if no U.S. president ever did anything to consolidate his hold on a group of voters. Under the Perons, hospitals, schools, culture centers and sports facilities were built at an unprecedented rate. I once spent three days at a wonderfully laid-out and equipped recreational complex in a resort town in the foothills of the Argentine Andes. It had been built by Evita as a place where the children of low-level government workers could enjoy a real summer holiday. She was buying more votes for her husband, critics would probably say.

In terms of direct help to the poor — let’s call it by its real name: charity — the heart of Evita’s personal efforts was a foundation she set up, the Eva Peron Foundation. During her last years, it was the center of her life. She would spend up to eighteen hours a day at her desk at Foundation headquarters, interviewing the needy as they filed past and with a notepad and pen before her. A woman might step up and declare she needed a sewing machine to make clothes for her family. Evita would write a note, “Give this lady a sewing machine,” initial it, give the note to the woman, and the woman would then take it to a warehouse and receive the needed sewing machine. Another woman might tell Evita that her little boy dreamed of owning a bicycle. “Give this lady a bicycle suitable for a seven-year-old boy,” Evita would write. A man might tell the First Lady he had been ill and out of work for three months, and now the landlord was evicting him and his family from their apartment. Evita would reach into a drawer and remove from a stack of currency the cash to cover the arrears plus three more months to give the man breathing space while he looked for a new job. The man would sign a receipt or, maybe, in the emotion of the moment it would be forgotten.

That was the trouble as far as Evita’s detractors were concerned. Where was the bookkeeping? Where the accountability?

Doubtless such a system of charity, if system it can even be called, was subject to abuse, but was it true, as some charged, that Evita took Foundation money to buy herself designer clothes and jewelry? I find the idea preposterous simply because there has probably never been a first lady of any country, including the U.S., who couldn’t dress elegantly if she wanted.

On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence that when it came to donations for the Foundation, Evita sometimes practiced the ancient art of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” For instance, a corporation looking to bid on a government contract might hear that the bid would be considered more favorably if it was accompanied by a substantial contribution to the Foundation. How much more favorably? It could depend on the size of the gift. Did a contract ever go to someone crooked or unable to fulfill its terms? Who can say?

What matters to my way of thinking is how Evita’s mind worked when it came to giving help. I believe I can say how, based on having read much about her in a couple of languages and, years ago, talking with persons who had dealings with her. I’m also thinking of the great lesson of the Mystery of he Visitation: We read in Scripture that when Our Lady learned her kinswoman Elizabeth was with child, she set out “with haste” — i.e., immediately — on a three-day journey by foot across rough, bandit-infested country to help her. Similarly, to Evita Peron charity was for today, not in three weeks or three months when all the paperwork was finally done. The whole point of having the Foundation was to meet immediate needs, bypassing the red tape of government welfare agencies and bureaucratic procedures of typical charitable organizations.

There’s something else: How Evita was — her being – as she dispensed charity.

First, even as she dispensed it, even as she met with the needy and often as not embraced and kissed them, she would have to interrupt proceedings to greet a foreign ambassador, then rush to a corner of the room to meet on urgent business with delegates of the powerful meatpackers’ union, leave them to award medals to the young members of a sports team, then pose for pictures with some gauchos who’d come to the capital for no purpose except to try to have their picture taken with her. The pace could be frenetic.

Throughout all this, there was one constant element, Evita’s “distribution of love.” Those are the words of Father Herman Benitez, her confessor and household chaplain. He published a memoir after she died. “I saw her kiss lepers,” he wrote, “I saw her kissing those suffering from tuberculosis or cancer. I saw her distribute her love, a love that rescues charity, removing that burden of injury which the exercise of charity implies. I saw her embrace people who were in rags and cover herself in lice.”

The Catholic poet Jose Maria Castineira de Dios observed Evita at work for three months in 1950. He wrote:

“There were people in that room with dirty clothes and they smelt very bad. Evita would place her fingers into their suppurating wounds for she was able to see the pain of all these people and feel it herself. She would touch the most terrible things with a Christian attitude that amazed me, kissing and letting herself be kissed. There was a girl whose lip was half eaten by syphilis and when I saw that Evita was about to kiss her and tried to stop her, she said to me, ‘Do you know what it will mean when I kiss her?’”

Evita died less than two years later of uterine cancer. The last coherent words we know she spoke were addressed to her maid in the morning of the day of her death, July 26, 1952. “I never felt happy in this life,” she said. “That is why I left home. My mother would have married me to someone ordinary and I could never have stood it, Irma. A decent woman has to get on in the world.”

After falling into a coma and receiving the last sacraments from Father Benitez, she died at 8:25 in the evening. Argentines who were living then can still tell you the exact time. In the words of Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navaro, authors of Eva Peron, the most complete and most objective biography of her yet published, when the news of her passing was broadcast by radio to the nation, “although no instructions had been given to this effect, the entire city and the entire country instantly went into the deepest, most heartfelt state of mourning. Cinemas stopped their movies, theaters interrupted their plays, restaurants, bars and boites suddenly showed customers to the door, their shutters slamming down over suddenly darkened street fronts. Within a matter of minutes the city was silent and dark.”

When her body was moved by ambulance from the Presidential Residence in the suburbs to the downtown Ministry of Labor, where it was scheduled to lie in state for three days, “eight people were killed in the crush, and in the next twenty-four hours 2,100 people would be treated for injuries…. At the end of the three days which had been set aside for the people to see Evita, it had become apparent that many people who wished to see her had not yet been able to do so, and the government decided to extend the ceremony indefinitely…. No count was ever made of how many people came to see her in the next thirteen days, but the several lines outside the building stretched as much as thirty blocks in different directions, making it necessary to wait several hours before one could get inside…. The weekend and for days afterwards, all restaurants, shops, theaters and cinemas and public transportation were shut down. The city was grey with rain, the avenues were shiny and black, and the sky was dense, unbroken grey. Each night there were processions of people with lighted torches while candles burned before giant likenesses of Evita. There were also thousands of small altars erected in the barrios, each with an image of her surrounded by flowers. From the open doors of churches could be heard, according to La Nacion, ‘the murmur of responses, the echoes of continual masses for Evita’s soul…’”

So was she a saint? Is she? Certainly not officially. Does it matter? Obviously not to persons like that teenage girl a couple of years ago.

I doubt an official cause for Evita would be opened today. Too much about her early life is known, and today the world, or at least our part of it, seems to need its official saints to be other-worldly.

During the decades since I came into the Church, I’ve been privileged to meet, or at least observe, men and women of apparent great holiness, even official holiness, and most of them have been religious or clerics. There were encounters with Mother Teresa, and I don’t know how many times — at least a couple of dozen — I saw John Paul II say Mass in venues ranging from up-close in the Sistine Chapel to great shrines like that of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, to sports arenas here and abroad. Yet I confess (it probably shows in what I’ve written here) I’ve always felt drawn to this person who would declare with nearly her last breath that “a decent woman has to get on in the world.” Perhaps it is because I am in the world. It is where Providence has placed me to work out my salvation. It is where most of us live.

What does a saint look like? For most Americans, she (or he) probably wouldn’t look like Evita, but granting the importance of the work of religious, especially in their prayer life where they pick up the slack of the rest of us, my conviction is that there can’t be real hope of rebuilding society along Christian lines until we begin to see holiness in our workplaces, schools, streets and other ordinary venues, as well as in convents, monasteries and the Apostolic Palace.