Two popes, two saints, two questions

Two popes, two saints, two questions

Pope Francis today chose April 27, 2014, as the canonization date for Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, a move that sets the stage for one of the most unusual and significant events of modern church history.

Proclaiming as saints two of his predecessors taps into some deep populist sentiments among Catholic faithful. Yet it also raises questions about the saintmaking process and the relationship between sainthood and papal performance.

The date chosen by Pope Francis makes sense. From a practical point of view, it gives Polish pilgrims in particular an opportunity to travel to Rome at a time of year when roads will presumably be free of snow and ice. April 27 is also Divine Mercy Sunday, which Pope John Paul made a church-wide feast to be celebrated a week after Easter. The pope died on the vigil of Mercy Sunday in 2005.

Last July, Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to Blessed John Paul II’s intercession, clearing the way for his canonization. At the same time, in a surprise move, Francis proposed that Blessed John XXIII be canonized at the same time, even though a similar second miracle was lacking.

Francis had a number of reasons for taking this unusual step. For one thing, the church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. For another, the new pope has clearly found inspiration in the vision and style of John XXIII, the much-loved Italian who was pope from 1958-63.

I’m convinced the pope also wants the dual canonization to be a unifying event, demonstrating that diverse models of holiness have a home in the Catholic Church.

But the canonizations inevitably raise questions, as well. One is procedural: in most cases, the church’s saintmaking norms call for approval of two miracles before canonization – a first miracle before beatification and a second one before canonization.

If a pope simply waives the miracle requirement (and no one is questioning his right to do so), what does it say about other pending sainthood causes? Are we reaching the point where miracles are no longer needed as a divine seal of holiness?

I spoke recently about this issue with Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who formerly headed the Vatican’s sainthood congregation. He told me the miracle requirement was not disappearing.

“Of course, sainthood exists independent of a miracle. But it’s still a valuable confirmation of holiness,” he said. The waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII was simply the exception that proves the continuing validity of the rule, he said.

An even thornier question is to what extent, if any, canonization endorses or exalts a pope’s decisions as head of the universal church. In 2009, when the cause of Pope Pius XII was being hotly debated, the Vatican addressed this issue, saying that while the sainthood vetting process must take into account the historical context in which a person lived, it was “not a judgment on the historical effects of all his operative choices.”

Likewise, Pope John Paul II once said that in beatifying or canonizing a pope, “the church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made.”

Nevertheless, for many Catholics, the church will be canonizing “John Paul the Great” and not simply a very holy man. His role in the demise of communism, his global travels, his political skills and his development of the church’s teaching authority, in the minds of many, are all part of what made him a saint.

On the other hand, critics who fault the Polish pope for his handling of the priestly sex abuse scandal are bound to question the wisdom of this canonization.

I expect that in coming months we’ll hear the Vatican explain that these popes are being held up as models of virtue and holiness, and not inducted into a papal “hall of fame.”

Historical note

The custom of proclaiming popes as saints was strong in the early church, an era in which many pontiffs were martyred. Of the first 50 popes, 48 were declared saints. That trend stopped in the Middle Ages, and over the last 700 years only two popes have been proclaimed saints.

It seems that recent popes are on a much faster track to sainthood, a trend inspired in part by Pope Paul VI, who launched the sainthood causes of Pius XII and John XXIII at the end of the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII was beatified in 2000. John Paul II was beatified in 2011.

At present, the causes of Pius XII and Paul VI have advanced to the point where they await only a miracle for beatification, the major step before canonization. The cause of Pope John Paul I is also being studied at the Vatican.


1 comment (Add your own)

1. Jonathan Cariveau wrote:
Like it or not, the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II will be perceived for decades to come as a canonization of the deeds of these men, including everything from their personal approaches to the Papacy to their styles of dress to their Magisterium to the historical decisions they made. In that regard, it matters little what addendum is attached the canonization; there's nothing that the Apostolic See can do to prevent that effect of canonization. Two thoughts immediately jump out regarding this Papal canonization process:

First and foremost, I think that it's dangerous to canonize individuals in a hurry, say, within ten years of their death or without a second miracle being attributed to them. Both of those constitute 'rushing' the canonization process along, either in terms of sheer time that's elapsed since their life, or regarding the actual process of moving them along to Sainthood itself. This danger is peculiarly amplified in the case of Supreme Pontiffs because of the sheer power they wield, the influence they carry, and the responsibility they bear for the health of the Catholic Church in each of their pontificates. In light of this, I can't help but feel as though the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II are proceeding apace without enough careful, measured criticism of their pontificates, and a hard look at what exactly occurred in their reigns, whether for good or ill. The clerical abuse scandal is only one of many things that could give one pause. The deterioration of the Latin Church's Liturgical piety and orthopraxy during Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II's pontificates is also a major issue, the extent of which can't really be doubted when one both looks at the evidence on the ground, and even in Papal documents like Redemptionis Sacramentum, which touches on just a few of the serious, even 'reprobated' abuses that crept into the Church's Liturgies. Likewise, the Assisi inter-religious prayer events under John Paul II are cause for concern, not only for their own sakes but because of the indifferentism they encourage. The faithful passing on of catechesis in the Catholic Religion in dioceses around the world was also severely compromised during John Paul II's pontificate. These are only some of the issues that could be examined, and really haven't been in a serious way. And really, why should they have been? Ten years is an extraordinarily short amount of time to really take stock of a long pontificate like John Paul II's, which is why it's so dangerous to rush his canonization process along.

The second danger I see is in terms of sheer scope. As you noted, the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II is all but sealed at this point. Paul VI is already well-along in the canonization process, which is a mystery to me. John Paul I, as well, is being ushered toward canonization by some and his cause is already opened. Francis, given his already burgeoning popularity, will probably be looked at for canonization at some point as well. What does it say about the Catholic Church's self-reflection if, after centuries of canonizing but one Pope, St. Pius X, she canonizes five out of six Pontiffs in the space of about sixty years? That strikes me as fundamentally odd, and bespeaks a lack of the same measured, cautious approach that characterized the Apostolic See's self-examination and restraint in canonizing Pontiffs in the last number of centuries, in spite of instances of clear holiness, such as Leo XIII. This of course begs the question: Why are we in such a rush to canonize all these men? What compels us to move forward in this quest, without much really critical examination and critique? Could it be that we don't really want to carefully examine our recent history because of the difficulties we've been having, and are responding to that by assuring ourselves of the legitimacy of this 'New Springtime' era by canonizing the Pontiffs that have presided over it? Are we so concerned to perpetuate the optimism that was first experienced under John XXIII's pontificate that we're willing to overlook serious problems, scandals, and diseases that have been or are currently afflicting the earthly, societal element of the Bride of Christ? That's what I see in these canonizations, and the trend to canonize all the Popes of Rome since John XXIII. It will also be interesting to see if Benedict XVI is moved toward canonization at the same speed as his Predecessors, because out of all the Popes in recent memory, he in particular spoke sternly about some of the abuses and problematic episodes in recent Church history, both as Pope and as Cardinal Ratzinger, and thus broke with the vibrant optimism that has characterized Catholic thought for decades now.

Mon, September 30, 2013 @ 1:30 PM

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