Some exclusive clubs have a limited number of members. The U.S. Senate has 100 members at a time. There have only been 43 U.S. presidents (recall that Grover Cleveland filled the office twice). Fewer still have walked on the moon – just a dozen humans have had that privilege.
The Catholic Church has an exclusive group, too. It’s not the canon of saints; that’s actually a pretty large group, and potentially it’s unlimited in size, since we are all called to holiness. Pope Benedict announced at the end of a Mass with seminarians Aug. 20 as part of World Youth Day that the list of Doctors of the Church would grow from 33 to 34 with the addition of St. John of Avila.
Though there are many doctors in the church, both the M.D. and Ph.D. kind, it’s not easy to become a Doctor of the Church. First of all, you have to be dead, and all those who have had the title bestowed upon them have been saints. Only three have been women. And you have to be brilliant. The rare designation is given to prolific writers whose works are renowned for having a profound impact on Catholic theology and teaching.
St. John of Avila, a master preacher, was known for his spirituality. The pope’s announcement in Madrid came as a surprise, and echoed the circumstance in which Pope John Paul II declared, in 1997 at World Youth Day in Paris, that he would add St. Thérèse of Lisieux to the list. The date for St. John’s formal proclamation was not announced, but the formal ceremony for St. Thérèse was held at the Vatican two months after John Paul’s announcement.
Some have “lobbied” for Blessed John Paul to be declared a doctor of the church, based on his extensive writings – including his books before his election to the papacy, his encyclicals and other papal messages, and the impact of his long series of homilies that became his consistent teaching on the Theology of the Body. However, others have pointed out that such a declaration would be premature.
Certainly those writings will be taken into account as part of the cause for his canonization, but it is well to note that most declarations of doctors of the church come centuries after the death and sainthood of the worthy individual. In St. John’s case, he passed into eternal life 440 years ago. Some saints were declared doctors 1,500 years after their deaths. This is not a speedy process, but one that considers the impact of the teachings over time.
We can, and should, be inspired by the teachings of the doctors. From simple exhortations such as St. Francis de Sales’ “Be who you are, and strive to be that perfectly,” to St. Teresa of Avila’s “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you. All things are passing; God never changes,” pearls of wisdom and much deeper passages are waiting to be mined from the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Bede and Catherine of Siena and more. Take some time to look them up and be inspired.
Christopher Gunty is associate publisher/editor of The Catholic Review. For a chronological list of the doctors of the church up to St. Thérèse, see tinyurl.com/doctors-church.