Thursday, September 13, 2007

Saint Gwen?

You keep hearing the call. But, for whatever reason, it isn't answered as well as it could be.

"We need more lay causes" for canonization, it says....

And here's one. Finally.

Now more than ever -- when people need to be encouraged in every possible way that they, too, can do it -- we sure do need our saints to look more like ourselves, to be able to see that sanctity still walks among us and can happen even in our own time. Without their examples, it becomes very easy -- in fact, too easy -- to forget that, for the believer, the name of the game isn't the call to power, or fame, glory or riches but, literally, to be a saint.

For starters, just look at the impact that someone like Gianna Beretta Molla -- an Italian doctor who died giving birth to her fourth child in 1962 and was canonized in 2004 -- has had on not a few. Same goes for the Austrian farmer, sacristan and father of three Franz Jagerstatter, a martyr of the Nazis who'll be beatified in Linz on 26 October.

And now, a cause from Ohio. Not a few of you know of Jerry and Gwen Coniker, the co-founders of the Apostolate for Family Consecration and parents of 12. (The couple -- who served for many years as consultors to the Pontifical Council for the Laity -- are shown above with John Paul II in an undated photo.)

On Sunday at the apostolate's Familyland retreat center, the preliminary investigation opened into the "heroic virtue" of Gwen Coniker, who died in June 2002:
There are men who say, "My wife is a saint for putting up with me." But an Ohio man, Jerome Coniker, may prove it.
The Vatican has given approval to pursue sainthood for his late wife, Gwen, who was 62 when she died in June 2002.

"When the church looks for sanctity, they don't seek phenomenal signs or revelations or apparitions. They just look for the virtuous life. She sure qualifies for that," said Mr. Coniker, co-founder with her of the Apostolate for Family Consecration in Bloomingdale, Ohio. Together they raised 12 children, and have 65 grandchildren....

For six months investigators will interview more than 100 witnesses and examine everything ever written by or about her. She will then become known as "[the] Servant of God Gwen Coniker."

Their reports will be sent to Rome, where theologians, bishops, cardinals and, ultimately, the pope, will decide if she was holy enough to proceed. If so, those promoting her cause will seek evidence of a medical miracle after someone sought her prayers. If the Vatican authenticates it, she will be beatified. One more miracle would be required for sainthood.

In Catholic teaching, anyone who dies and goes to heaven is, in fact, a saint. But the church chooses some as universal role models. Healings after the deceased is believed to have prayed for a medically hopeless case are considered proof of that soul's whereabouts.

Mary Ellen Redington, who is assisting her husband, Deacon Randall Redington, in organizing the work in Bloomingdale, said the group has received claims of miracles. But church rules forbid her to discuss them.

"If I told you and you printed it, we couldn't use it," she said.
Some experts say that Mrs. Coniker appears to be the kind of new saint that the Vatican is looking for: She lived and died in a happy marriage. The claim for heroic virtue is based partly on her refusal to abort her 11th child after a doctor warned that the birth would kill her. With her husband, she gave up affluence to found a ministry to families.

That ministry includes Catholic Familyland, which can house up to 1,000 people for swimming, horseback riding and Eucharistic devotion; the Familyland TV network; teaching centers in Mexico, Europe, Russia, Nigeria and the Philippines; and a vast array of books and media on Catholic theology for laity. At Familyland's annual Totus Tuus Family Conference, which begins Friday, Mr. Coniker will speak about his late wife.

They met at St. Gregory High School in Chicago and married in 1959, when she was 19 and he was 20. He later started a management firm that had Fortune 500 clients, and they bought a six-bedroom house near Chicago.

In the early 1960s, they threw themselves into the nascent right-to-life movement. By 1971 they concluded that the antidotes to abortion and family disintegration were spiritual, not political. They sold everything they had and moved to Fatima, Portugal -- the site of a famed apparition of the Virgin Mary -- to seek spiritual guidance. They stayed for two years.

In 1973 they moved to Kenosha, Wis., to work for a Franciscan community. They were broke and uninsured, and Mrs. Coniker required a Cesarean section -- the first of four -- for the birth of their ninth child. A doctor donated his services and became a close friend. Two years and a 10th baby later, with another on the way, the doctor told Mrs. Coniker that her uterus would burst and kill her unless she had an abortion. She refused.

"She really thought she was going to die giving birth to Theresa," Mr. Coniker said.

She wrote a letter to her other 10 children, expecting them to read it after her death. In it, she told stories about each of their births, and how she had loved and welcomed each of them. It was her way of telling them to welcome and love the new baby in spite of her own death, said Theresa Schmitz, 31, the child she refused to abort.

"All 12 of us children felt like we were her best friend," said Mrs. Schmitz, who works at Catholic Familyland. All 12 children are active Catholics.

No matter how they squabbled, her mother was a model of loving patience, she said.

"She always referred to herself as the 'baby sitter for God.' We were not her children, we were entrusted to her by God, and she handled us as such," Mrs. Schmitz said.

"If we wanted something that she felt would not be good for us, she put everything into perspective and helped us see that we were on loan to her and she needed to do her best to present us to our Lord in the next life."

But it was not easy.
Keep the causes comin', folks... we need 'em.

Apostolate for Family Consecration