Shahbaz Bhatti and the Stuff of Saints

It wasn’t something in their DNA that made Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and St. Francis of Assisi special. Their humanity was the same as everyone else’s. It was what they did with it that made them holy. And this should remind us that we are all the stuff of saints.

Our strange globe, marked by crisscrossing airplanes and glossy skyscrapers, and clouded by the plumes of war, makes it unpleasant to look around. Our computers neatly organize the messy world, and bring it to us in seemingly crisp news stories that don’t distinguish between the trivial and the heroic:

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–  “Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pakistan, assassinated.”
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Something about the way we take in the world today, a series of hyperlinks and colorful boxes, has obscured the fact that we are amidst a spiritual battle and that future saints walk among us.
Shahbaz Bhatti was one of them. Google his picture. There is something hauntingly kind and gentle about his face. But his life and example are anything but delicate.

He became Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities in 2008, the only Roman Catholic, indeed the only Christian in the cabinet, and one of few open minds in a government veering towards extremism. He took office in order to defend the “oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized” and to struggle “for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities.” He wanted, he said, to send “a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair.”

Bhatti became an outspoken opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which make speech regarded as offensive to Islam punishable by death. He advanced religious freedom for Pakistanis of all faiths, among them Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. He launched a national campaign to promote interfaith harmony, instituted a twenty-four-hour hotline to report violence against religious minorities, proposed a comparative religion course to the Ministry of Education, created prayer rooms for non-Muslims in the prison system, started a campaign to protect religious artifacts and sites belonging to other faiths, and lobbied the government to respect holidays and festivals of religious minorities.

He was gunned down by extremists while leaving his mother’s home on the way to another day’s work. Death threats began in 2009 after he spoke out about violence against Christians in Gojra Province. They escalated when he refused to back down about the much-abused blasphemy laws.

This might look like just one more modern political crusade. But there’s more to it, much more. Because we are the stuff of saints, we yearn for saints – for living examples of what we can become. So when someone has lived among us who has been martyred, we need to recognize his sainthood.

We yearn for saints in the same way that we crave sacraments. We need to taste and see that God is good. God does not need us to confess aloud, to walk through the steps. We need it. We need to hear the words of absolution. We are physical, sensorial people, and we need the physical, sensorial good news that Christ has liberated us from our sins.

Similarly, we need examples of people who have lived lives worth living. We need to see that courage for Christ is still possible in a world that prefers not to notice; that a gentle man of conviction, raised in a middle-class home with four brothers and one sister in Lahore, Pakistan can become a saint.

Shahbaz Bhatti (r.): “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . and I follow Him to the cross.”

Canonization often begins with acclaim by the people, before a formal papal proclamation. The people immediately venerated St. Francis of Assisi at his death; the papal proclamation followed just two years later. The Church, with good reason, has put in place a process of formal canonization procedures, but the cry of the laity still matters. At the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the crowd cried out, “Santo Subito!” Pope Benedict began the process of beatification immediately, bypassing the normal five-year waiting period.

Cries for the beatification of Bhatti have already arisen. The bishops of Pakistan are considering asking the Vatican to declare Bhatti a martyr. On March 4, local Catholics observed a day of fasting and prayer, and processed in Bhatti’s home diocese of Faisalabad, venerating his legacy. A papal declaration of martyrdom would bypass the required miracle needed to beatify Bhatti. (A miracle would still be required to declare him a saint.)

The cry for Bhatti’s beatification and sainthood may quickly become universal. I never knew him. But my colleagues at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty did. One recalls him expressing his willingness to die for the cause of religious freedom for all.

In a video recorded shortly before his death, Bhatti responded to threats to his life, “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of ‘cross,’ and I follow Him to the cross.”

This is the stuff of saints.

Bhatti followed the cross to his death, and in doing so he became more than a Pakistani hero. His message is universal. His words were for everyone, everywhere, and always will be.

It’s strange to watch the words of a martyr, spoken gently on YouTube. But we are all made of the stuff of saints, and the saints of today and tomorrow are among us in everyday ways. And now we can present Shahbaz Bhatti to the Church as a candidate for formal recognition as a martyr and saint.

The Catholic Church lacks a patron saint for religious freedom. (Not surprising, since Dignitatis Humanae is only forty-five-years old.) Pope John Paul II is an obvious choice. But he’s a candidate for many other causes, from Theology of the Body to skiing. My personal hunch is that March 2 may one day mark the feast of Shahbaz Bhatti, martyr, and patron saint of religious freedom.


Ashley E. McGuire iis a senior fellow with The Catholic Association and the author of Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female.