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Off base? Effort underway to make Roberto Clemente a saint

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Roberto Clemente has a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and now there’s an effort to enshrine him in the Vatican’s version of the hall.

Evangelist-turned-movie maker Richard Rossi is spearheading an effort to make the late Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder a saint.

Religion News Service reported that Mr. Rossi and a group of volunteers are working to collect stories about any sort of “healing touch” from Clemente that could be attributed to a miracle.

“One reason the Catholic Church has lasted a couple of thousand years, it has this kind of process, they’re very slow and so we want to make sure we present something that, you know, has a lot of credible evidence,” Mr. Rossi told the news service. “He had a calling to be a great baseball player, but he had a calling beyond baseball.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Clemente was killed New Year’s Eve 1972 in a plane crash during an effort to deliver aid and supplies to earthquake-ravaged communities in Nicaragua. He was 38.

He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, having had 3,000 hits during his career and a .317 batting average.

Mr. Rossi, who was 9 when Clemente died, has produced a movie titled “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories,” which focuses on the player’s life off the diamond. The filmmaker did not respond to a request for comment.

While Mr. Rossi’s canonization efforts are relatively new, theology professor Carmen Nanko-Fernandez has been working on her book, “El Santo! Baseball and the Canonization of Roberto Clemente,” for a decade.

“Clemente does get described in saint language all the time,” said Ms. Nanko-Fernandez, associate professor of Hispanic theology and ministry at the Catholic Theological Union. “What I found fascinating is why does this ball player get sanctity language around him and when does it occur. It’s really interesting. It occurs at the point of his death, then his life gets read backwards through this lens.”

Being raised in a family of baseball fans, she said, coupled with being a Latina and a theologian, led her to investigate Clemente’s life.

Ms. Nanko-Fernandez said the fact that Clemente died on his way to help others on New Years Eve, an important time of celebration for Puerto Rican families, was viewed as heroic, and that interest sparked a revisiting of his life.

“Clemente’s life gets re-examined,” she said. “All the quiet stuff he did, nobody knew about. He visited children’s hospitals, he was a real advocate for racial justice.”

His healing touch, however, likely came from using his own techniques he learned for pain mitigation after he injured his back in a car accident, she said.

Whether that constitutes as a miracle, or if Mr. Rossi can prove a miracle through the intercession of Clemente, Mr. Nanko-Fernandez couldn’t say.

“What it looks like, he was a good man who tried to live a good life as best he could,” she said.

For sainthood in the Catholic Church, beatification is the first major step and usually requires a miracle attributed to the intercession of the candidate. A second miracle usually is required for canonization to sainthood.

Pope Francis in April canonized Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.

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