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The Politics of Saint-Making


The Politics of Saint-Making


Two popes will become saints this week. On Sunday, Pope Francis will officially add to the Roman Catholic canon the names of two of his recent predecessors: Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. It would be better if he were not doing so.

Francis has had no choice in the case of John Paul II, the most popular pope ever in terms of the sheer numbers who flocked to see him during the 26-and-a-half years of his globe-trotting pontificate. He has been made a saint faster than anyone in history, in a process that began only days after his death in April 2005. The crowds gathered at his funeral chanted, “Santo Subito!” (“Make him a saint now!”). Normally five years have to pass before the procedure can begin. But the waiting period was waived by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who wanted to consolidate the conservative legacy of the Polish pontiff. All that there was left for Francis to do was name the date for this weekend’s ceremony.

Francis has signaled no major doctrinal departures from his predecessors. “I am a son of the church,” he has declared. But he has repeatedly demonstrated a different set of priorities, preferring mercy over moralizing and inclusion over dogmatic rigidity.

Some suggest that this is just a matter of style. The Vatican expert John Allen has used a vivid musical metaphor to characterize the differences: John Paul was a heavy-metal kind of pope, Benedict XVI a classical music pontiff and Francis is a folk musician. But on one particular issue there is more of a difference between the Polish and Argentine popes than between Black Sabbath and Saints Peter, Paul and Mary.

The key divergence lies in their attitude toward the Second Vatican Council, the event that revolutionized Catholicism in the 1960s, transforming a church focused on its internal sacramental life into one open to the outside world. For two decades, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to row back on what they saw as excessive change in a church driven by liberals acting in “the spirit of Vatican II.” To counter that, John Paul spoke of a “culture of death” that attacked modern attitudes to abortion and contraception; Benedict warned constantly about “moral relativism.” As a result, many in the church felt marginalized by the increasing conservatism of these two pontificates.

By contrast, Francis embraces a culture of life. He has declared that there can be “no turning back the clock” on Vatican II and its changes; indeed, he said, it has not gone far enough. All that explains why he has decided to pair the canonization of the Polish conservative with that of John XXIII, the Italian pontiff who launched Vatican II. Francis has even decided to waive the need for a second miracle: The church generally requires two miracle cures before someone can be declared a saint, and so far only one has been credited to the man Italians call Good Pope John.

Anyone familiar with the history of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, before he became Pope Francis, will not be surprised by his astute balancing act. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was a shrewd politician as well as an inclusive pastor. In coupling the two papal canonizations, he is signaling to conservatives and liberals alike that no one should be excluded from the church’s embrace.

Even so, his actions have demonstrated very publicly how politicized saint-making has become, a process that risks devaluing the idea that saints are above all role models for how ordinary people should live a holy life. For the first 1,000 years of church history, saints were created by the popular acclamation of ordinary folk making pilgrimages to their tombs. From the 11th century onward, Rome took control of the process to ensure the orthodoxy as well as the sanctity of individual saints. That politicization has become even more evident in recent times, and the whole system of edification has become distinctly unedifying.

Thus Josemaría Escrivá, founder of the conservative movement Opus Dei, was made a saint in record time under John Paul, who so favored Opus Dei that he removed the group from the control of local bishops. Escrivá’s canonization came despite allegations that he was an ill-tempered, authoritarian misogynist.

Yet, at the same time, sainthood was obstructed for the martyred archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot and killed at the altar as he said Mass in San Salvador in 1980. He had angered the military in El Salvador by urging soldiers to refuse to obey orders to murder political opponents. John Paul blocked Romero’s cause because it was backed by left-wingers of whom the anti-Communist pope was suspicious.

In some ways Pope John Paul II improved saint-making. He canonized many lay women and men, not just ordained priests, creating a staggering 483 saints — more than all his predecessors in the previous 500 years. He also created saints from a far greater geographical spread, even among indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Under Francis, the man they call the People’s Pope, you might similarly have expected more saints who are not priests but ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds. All the more so because Francis has inveighed on several occasions that clericalism — the exaggerated status of priests — is the scourge of the modern church.

So it is deeply ironic that this weekend the pope will find himself making saints of two men at the very pinnacle of that clerical hierarchy. A double papal canonization has never happened in the church’s 2,000-year history. Francis would be well advised to ensure that it does not happen again.

Paul Vallely is a visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester and the author of “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.”

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  1. Seamus Ahearne osa says:

    Paul Vallely’s article is clear and measured. The process of canonisation needs revision. It is in so many ways artificial and contrived. The Canonisation of the two popes is rather embarrassing. It was put cruelly but rather succinctly in an article (I think it was The Tablet) that it was like the Bankers given bonuses to the bankers – almost insider dealing in some senses.
    It is hardly popes we need to be canonised. Our saints don’t have to go through the laboured process of looking for miracles – we know our saints; they are local and ordinary and very real. It is the job of popes to be saintly! They are only doing their job. In ways this is shambles.
    The canonisation of John XX111 seems right to many of us. He opened doors and windows. He let the fresh air in. We felt the Gospel was alive and the Church was showing off who Jesus was. It was Good News. He was full of humanity. He showed humour. His faith was simple and very obvious. He caused the Council to happen. A new Church was born. Many of us found hope in the midst of his aura.
    John Paul was a very charismatic person. He gave great world-wide status to the Church. He had arrived from the East. He was a political heavyweight. Poland thrived on his ‘power’ and ‘status.’ He was very flamboyant and showed his dramatic prowess. However he was hindered by his history. (As we all are). His limitations affected all of us.
    The Church in some ways died in his time. We lost all we had gained with John 23rd. (I know that Paul V1 and Humanae Vita did huge damage as well. We embraced rigidity with JP2. The heart was suffocated. His canonisation is happened with undue haste and in some ways canonises a system which is rather foreign to Jesus Christ and very far away from the Gospel. Bad News cannot be Good News.
    I can see the political juggling act of balancing John XX111 and John Paul 2 together but I still find it all very embarrassing. Is there any danger that politically it might be right to now canonise Benedict even before he dies?? At least he had the faith and sense to see that Mark 4. 35 applied to him.
    Mick Pello (Would you Believe) came along to Finglas South to do a vox pop in preparation for a programme on the Canonisation. Mick explained that he might not use any of the comments but would mix them in if they were appropriate to the wider programme and ‘positive.’ (That didn’t happen!) He was told by Finnie – “Are you censoring us?” Mick asked that people to trust him. Finnie said: “Trust you. Why should we? I don’t even know you.” Well Finnie had a point. Mick had a point. But I hope that after this Canonisation – those involved in the whole process of canonisations, will learn a little and give us some reason to trust them in the future. I have little confidence in those who allowed this Celebration happen. Seamus Ahearne osa

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    It seems to me that the 8 Cardinal Advisers had plenty of time to yell, “Francie, STOP!” Time for Rodriguez Maradiaga to get the remaining seven ducks in line.
    Another thing that keeps bugging me: those of us who quietly canonised Angelo Roncalli fifty years ago, without any carefully staged “Santo Subito!” fleg-waving, need to remember that we only had him for less than 5 years. If he’d hung around for nearly three decades, both he and we might have changed our minds. Indeed if we’d had Jorge Bergoglio as a superior three decades ago, we mightn’t have been oohing-and-aahing so much over his every gesture. Would the real Pope Francis please stand up?
    Seamus, last time Mick Peelo visited Rivermount for a Would you Believe a couple of years ago, you were all stars. Sorry that we’ve missed Finnie.

  3. Mary O Vallely says:

    I have to agree with Paul V and Seamus Ahearne here. I’m extremely uncomfortable about these canonisations as indeed many of us are. However, I can understand Pope Francis’s dilemma and do not envy him his burden of office. God love him too. He can’t please all of us so this trying to balance the liberal and the conservative (and yes, I hate the fact that we put labels on people but we do)is his effort at making the best of it. It cannot be undone now. I wonder too at the shameful haste to declare JPII a saint. Is it a case of, once a saint, you can no longer be subject to criticism? Is that part of the thinking behind the ‘santo subito?’ Why are so many popes canonised anyway? I can see my Protestant friends’ eyebrows raised higher than ever and mine are up there with them too.

  4. I come from, as you all will know, from the conservative/traditionalist standpoint, and I am not content with the rush to canonise these two popes. What’s the rush? Why skip miracles, and why accept possibly dubious miracles? I think that these things need time, and the Church thinks in centuries, not decades. Certainly we can wait. The rush to canonise undermines the whole process and, amongst other things, does a disservice to the memory of the person concerned and to the good of the process and its credibility. I think the Church needs to proceed with great care and prudence, and I fear this is not being done in this case. We need to bring back the devil’s advocate and the need for miracles. Whilst Pope Pius XII waits quietly in line (because of the doubts about his WWII record due to pressure from modern Jewish lobbies), we see a rush to canonise JPII, who stands accused of not having done enough for the sexual abuse situation. Whether he did or not is now seemingly irrelevant. The man and the Church deserve to take the time to look into the facts carefully, and without any pressure. Again, what is the rush? We should be slow to canonise any pope, and few have been canonised over the years. I feel a certain sadness for the memory of Pope John Paul II; I think he, and we, deserve better than this; we deserve time. The Church deserves to take the time.

  5. Bernard Kennedy says:

    In 1983 Pope John Paul 2 visited Salvador and prayed at Romero’s Tomb- allowing photographs to be taken of gesture. In 1997 Pope John Paul 2- declared Archbishop Romero ‘ a Servant of God’ officially opening cause to sainthood.

  6. Eddie Finnegan says:

    This may be the first time I’ve agreed with Shaun@4 but on this I agree with him heartily. Bernard Kennedy@5 is right too. Even on the saint-making industry, however, despite the best of good universalist motives John Paul II lost the run of himself. I hope that at some suitable point in Sunday’s St Peter’s Square ceremony, Pope emeritus Benedict will stand up and pronounce this fatwa: “I am not now, nor do I ever wish to be a candidate for canonisation, beatification, or even venerability. Just leave me alone with my cats and piano. May any of you who ever suggest otherwise be anathema.”

  7. We are requested not to attack the writer, but what can one make of such an obvious attempt at misrepresentation? Trying to construct a false dichotomy between the present pope and his immediate predecessors, Vallely writes, “To counter that, [i.e., liberal trend] John Paul spoke of a “culture of death” that attacked modern attitudes to abortion and contraception . . . ” Firstly, a faulty sentence structure leaves it uncertain if the “culture of death” itself is attacking modern attitudes, an obvious absurdity. But it lends itself to the further implied absurdity that somehow John Paul was actually advocating a ” culture of death,” instead of assailing it. We then learn that, by contrast, “Francis embraces a culture of life.”
    In point of fact, John Paul ll was implicitly invoking a “culture of life” in his every challenge to the culture of death. If Mr. Vallely wants to make valid points against these sainted individuals, he had better learn to sharpen his own prose first.

  8. Gene Carr says:

    Fr Doyle’s data in his NCR is interesting but misses certain ‘macro’ aspects of the abuse issue. The John Hopkins University did a comprehensive study of the data for the US from 1950 to 2002 and beyond. The most salient fact is that the great bulk of the actual incidents of abuse are concentrated between 1965 and the early 1980s. From then on there is a steep and continuing decline in the incidence. Much of the various irruptions and publicity in subsequent years refer to pre-1980 events. The is a case for saying that the heavy concentration of incidence in the 1970s was due to the collapse of doctrinal, seminary and clerical discipline due to the botched interpretation of Vatican II. And a case can be made that the is was the election of John Paul 11 and his forceful efforts to restore discipline and to reform seminary formation that led to the decline in the incidence from then on. A case can be made against him concerning Maciel. But as with the NAZI regime, John Paul would have been acutely aware of the Communist regime’s tactic of smearing prominent churchmen and priest with accusations of pederasty and homosexuality aimed at undermining the moral authority of their principal enemy. Many observers over the period suspected (wrongly as it turned out) that because of the relative success of the Legion that Mariel was being smeared.
    Regardless, the notion that John XXIII and John Paul II were radically different in their doctrinal beliefs is far fetched. I have never been able to find anything in the writings and encyclicals of JPII that contradict or do not express the decrees of Vatican II, or even that disagree or contradict anything written by John XXIII. We should deal in facts and not in mythology. Having said that I am inclined to agree with Shaun that more time should have passed: and I would also like to see that wonderful Catholic institution, The Devil’s Advocate restored.

  9. Miracles : A few years ago I found myself listening to a Church of England minister describe his congregation’s reaction when a church member was seriously ill in hospital. It may have been cancer. Regular prayers for the recovery of the sick person were undertaken by individuals and groups within the congregation. The minister himself visited the sick person in hospital and “laid hands on” the the person and prayed for the person’s recovery. The otherwise unexplained recovery which happened was attributed to the healing power of Jesus (not the power or goodness of those who prayed) which was asked for with faith. It did not get into the national news. But as you can tell, it became known within the local church. That seems to me the church as it should be. Are such things secret in the Catholic Church or have they been set aside in favour of other more important things? I still receive by email a copy of the monthly prayer diary for a church I attended for years in London. They are a real church community.

  10. The article and the comments here are rather unfortunate and misplaced as it put into question the infallibility of the Holy Father in terms of Faith and Morals. This is just so sad. We can disagree on other things but not on established truths as taught by the Church’s Magisterium.

  11. David, faithful Catholics now accept Pope JPII is in heaven. But we are free to debate the prudence of such a move to declare him a saint. The Church is a human and divine institution and the human often fails. Pius XII is waiting for sainthood as there are demands that his record on the Jews during WWII is lacking; the Church is acquiescing to demands, most especially from Jewish quarters, to wait until the archives are examined. The dust has hardly settled on the Pontificate of JPII, yet he is now a canonised saint, even as there are questions about his performance on the abuse issue. Nothing wrong with questioning the wisdom or prudence of such a move as to swiftly canonise someone whose record has apparently not been fully evaluated.

  12. Con Devree says:

    If Pope Francis is guilty of the acts of contrivance and connivance listed here, then he has besmirched the whole canonisation process and is indeed guilty of a certain sleight of hand!

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Santo subito” was a chant launched by Comunione e liberazione plants on an emotional occasion, a hijacking of popular piety. The Vatican decision that the people had spoken was rather premature.

  14. Kevin Walters says:

    Con Devree @14
    If Pope Francis is guilty of the acts of contrivance and connivance listed here, then he has besmirched the whole canonisation process and is indeed guilty of a certain sleight of hand
    When Pontus Pilate washed his hands in public he separated his public responsibility (High Office) from his personal self, while he murdered innocence. To his compatriots he would be still seen as a man of Honour. It now appears, that his example is been taught to the laity, in these words, “Personal Holiness has nothing to do with one’s responsibility held in high office. (The Pontificate)” As now, like Pontus Pilate, the Church has through the authority of Pope Francis washed its hands in public in regards to the cover up of the child abuse scandal, as it has now separated the responsibility of those who hold high office from the man himself.
    Pope Francis is not guilty of sleight of hand, as all those who serve the Truth (Love) can see what he ACTUAL did. In conceding to worldly men of Honour, rather than embrace the wounded Christ and suffer for the cause of Truth, he was prepared to act in callousness and use the authority of the Holy Spirit (Truth) to belittle and inflict further pain on these who cry out for justice from Gods holy church on earth.
    To give worldly prestige Honourable men in the world receive Knighthoods and often this has to be justified with the man’s IMAGE been attached to generous giving to charity etc.
    It now appears that honourable (Worldly) men in the Church will now be able to confer Sainthood on each other, as from now on, an IMAGE of personal holiness will suffice.
    For me this was the defining moment for Pope Francis, I had hoped that we would see a man holding the bright flame of Truth (Love) before all of mankind, by stopping these contentious canonizations and embrace the failings of the papacy (Cover up of the child abuse scandal), under John Paul 11. Teaching by EXAMPLE, in been prepared to suffer for the Truth , embrace the wounds (Sufferings) of Christ and in so doing ask all of us to do the same, be an EXAMPLE serve and be prepared to suffer for the Truth in humility, acknowledging our own human frailty and in so doing expose the evil that enslaves mankind, our sinfulness.
    Do we see The Good Shepherd or Just another Politian?
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  15. Con Devree says:

    Walter 16
    If I read it properly your comment does not agree with Pope Francis’ action regarding the canonisation of Pope St John Paul; that you see it as Pope Francis acting in a manner at variance with Truth (Love); that you see it not as one of sleight of hand but as one of callousness.

    There are two issues. One relates to whether or not Pope Saint John Paul is a saint. Your comment relates to the second, to the issue I raised at 14 above which concerned Pope Francis’s motivation and the integrity of his behaviour. Your comment is a clear answer to the second –the action was “above board” but at odds with Truth (Love).

    I don’t believe Pope Francis was engaged in any “acts of contrivance and connivance,” or that he “besmirched the whole canonization process” or that he is guilty of “a certain sleight of hand!” (14 above).

    The plight of the sexually abused is painful for the Pope. But Pope Benedict who was given the poisoned chalice of dealing with the atrocity by Pope Saint John Paul (once he realised the true nature of the scandal) has never been in any doubt about John Paul’s sanctity.

    I have total confidence that Pope Francis would not engage in “astute [neo political] balancing act[s]” (Vallelly) or any form of “political juggling” at the expense of Truth (Love). Those who assert such are of course free to do so, but such an assertion questions his integrity. In the case of Pope Saint John Paul he recognized the sanctity and the miracles, and has now invoked his assistance in the upcoming synod. The related evidence makes clear that he has always regarded Pope Saint John XXIII as a saint.

  16. Kevin Walters says:

    Con Devree @17
    Thank you for your comment
    I did not say that that John Paul 11, now Saint, actions were above board, as only time will show this, as at this moment in time there is grave doubt about his integrity in dealing with the child abuse scandal and his dealings with Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado.
    I deliberately avoided making any reference to the two popes who have been canonised and concentrated on the actions of Pope Francis as his action can be analysed as they unfold before us.
    As far as Pope Francis’s integrity is concerned it is fair to say that he would have been fully aware of the tens of thousands of derogatory articles and comments on the canonisation of John Paul 11 over the last few years. You say “the plight of the sexually abused is painful for the Pope”, but apparently it was not painfully enough to delay the canonizations of these two popes and facilitate the justifiable concerns of many families and organizations that have assisted victims, their concerns were total disregarded why? As Pope Francis callously continued with the canonization process which only he had the authority to stop, he would have been fully aware that victims who have been traumatized need closure and this closure for the majority of the abused and their families can only be achieved by the perpetrators or their accomplices (those who facilitated The Papacy to cover up this scandal) showing true contrition for what they have done.
    The canonization of John Paul 11 before the world media by Pope Francis was an act of emotional violence on those who have been abused and their families, by having to watch (relive) and see again the hypocrisy of so many of the elite in our church who the majority of mankind believed contrived in the cover up and then to be seen participating in bestowing its highest Honour on the one man, who so many believe could have averted the untold suffering of so many innocent and vulnerable victims, this action by Pope Francis most certainly does call into question his Integrity.
    I have read on different sites what is been said about the canonization of Pope John Paul the second and the possible captions that could be added to cartoon images after canonization, a perfect storm is brewing, which will run for generations but THESE cartoons will bear witness to the arrogance and total disregard for those who have suffered under his stewardship, as now the leaders (Bishops) of Roman Catholic Church under the authority of Pope Francis have submitted further humiliation on the abused and vulnerable.
    Taken from the Irish Times, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
    “I am a strong believer in freedom of speech and of the vital role of satire in social criticism, but I object to anything that would unjustly tarnish all good priests with the unpardonable actions of some”.
    I do not think that in the years to come Bishop Martin will be able to use the same comment in defence of himself and all of the Bishops (who by implication again betray our Shepherds) in relation to their part in the canonisation of John Paul 11.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  17. Con Devree says:

    Kevin # 18
    Just one clarification.
    The sentence “Your comment is a clear answer to the second –the action was “above board” but at odds with Truth (Love).” #17, refers to Pope Francis not Pope Saint John Paul II. The “above board” bit was based on your sentence (#16) “Pope Francis is not guilty of sleight of hand, as all those who serve the Truth (Love) can see what he ACTUAL did.”

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