At my Catholic boys high school in Pittsburgh, every class began with a prayer. Although prayers were usually led by teachers, our freshman history teacher Mr. Wynn subcontracted the job to students. Eager to delay the actual lesson, we prolonged the prayers with some facetious embellishments. I remember a witty kid named Robert McNulty intoning: “St. Roberto of Clemente, pray for us.”
Roberto Clemente, of course, was the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates rightfielder who was to die on New Year’s Eve of 1972 when his plane delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed into the sea.
Little did McNulty know! This week I received an email from Richard Rossi, a Pittsburgh native now living in Los Angeles who is leading a campaign to have Clemente canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. Rossi is the director of the film “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.” (21 was the number of Clemente’s jersey.)
According to a letter Rossi sent to Pope Francis and the archbishop of Clemente’s native Puerto Rico: “Roberto Clemente was not only the best rightfielder of all time in his 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but was also an imitator of Christ, dying to save others, on a mission of mercy to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. My film shows Clemente exemplified the Scripture, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ ”
Apparently the rescue mission that ended in his death wasn’t the only example of Clemente’s charity and compassion. All in all, he seems the model of the kind of humble Christian Francis likes to extol.
But here’s the catch: For someone other than a martyr to qualify as a saint, his advocates must be able to point to two miracles traceable to the candidate’s intercession. (Francis angered some conservative Catholics when he let the liberalizing Pope John XXIII squeak through with only one). Rossi told me that he has been gathering accounts of miracles that could be attributed to Clemente both during and after his lifetime.
The medieval-seeming miracle requirement long has been criticized, and occasionally has been the inspiration for comedy. On the old “Saturday Night Live,” Don Novello’s character Father Guido Sarducci (the supposed gossip columnist for the Vatican newspaper) memorably criticized the canonization of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint, because she had been responsible for so few miracles — and “two of them was card tricks.”
One Catholic commentator, the American Jesuit Thomas Reese, thinks it’s time to abandon the miracle requirement. According to Reese: “It is sufficient to look at a person’s life and ask, Did this person live the life of a Christian in a special or extraordinary way that can be held up for admiration and imitation by other Christians?”
If that were the standard, Clemente’s humanitarian activities would be ample evidence of sainthood — and the Vatican wouldn’t even have to take account of his miraculous batting average.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3