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Their Holinesses

In Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section, an article by David Gibson asked, "Should any pope be made a saint?" The headline posed a question much easier to answer: "Is Every Pontiff a Saint?" Obviously not. But Rome's recent history of proposing popes as candidates for canonization suggests that the most pertinent query may be a combination of the above: Should every recent pope be made a saint?

John Paul II beatified Pius IX, the 19th-century pope who is a polarizing figure because of his belief in the power of the papacy and his views on Judaism. But like Benedict, John Paul did a little ticket-balancing. He simultaneously beatified the popular John XXIII, who convened the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in 1962. The canonization process for Paul VI, who followed John XXIII, is underway, and there is a campaign to beatify John Paul I, who reigned a mere 33 days before his death in 1978.This trend, by some accounts, is creating several problems. One is that it can dilute the meaning of sainthood; all who die and go to heaven are saints, but those officially recognized as such by the church are exalted as worthy of veneration and imitation. Is every pope such an exemplar? Moreover, by canonizing predecessors a reigning pope elevates the throne he himself occupies and practically ensures that his successor one day will declare him a saint as well as if sanctity were an award for becoming pope.

Do we need to make saints out of even the holiest recent popes -- all of them (with the exception of John Paul I!) far from obscure? The drawbacks are obvious. What are the benefits?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Pope-worship is one of the less attractive features of Catholicism. The current move to canonize popes (after a long hiatus--how many years from Pius V to Pius X?) seems to me unfortunate. It gives support to oracularism, the too simple view that when we hear the bishop of Rome speak we are hearing nothing other than the voice God, vox papae vox dei. it must surely be a bar to the reunion of honest Christians.

In the old days, martyrdom alone was a sufficient manifestation for sanctity. Even now, with the lengthy process, martyrs may be beatified (though not canonized) without the usual miracle being attributed.Martyrdom seems relatively simple and quick compared to the long, slow tasking of the modern papacy.

It just seems to me that canonization should be rooted in the people. If a cultus springs up organically, then the canonization process provides a valuable filter, to ask skeptical questions and document the life, deeds, words, attributed miracles, etc. Being touted by a public figure in the hierarchy or on ETWN doesn't qualify as a cultus, though! Media manipulation could easily distort the process, istm.

Mollie, kind of you to post this--the story line/debate is pretty familiar to most dotCommoners from previous threads here. But there are many interesting aspects to the issue, one of which, to my mind, is prompted by the Vatican statement last month defending the declration of Pius' heroic virtue. It says, in part, that "the evaluation essentially concerns the witness of Christian life that the person showed (his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection...) and not the historical impact of all his operative decisions."As I wrote in the NYT, that seems to impose a false division between piety and deeds. Or does it? On one level, I'd certainly say most every pope of recent times has been saintly in the sense of a devout and pious and "good" Catholic. Certainly an improvement from the Borgias etc. But is that enough to make them a saint? Then again, the Vatican statement goes on to effectively say the Church has already determined that Pius' actions were virtuous as well. And Benedict has said as much, as reiterated as much during his Sunday synagogue visit. So there seems to be a bit of confusion--that the question of canonization centers of the pope's spiritual life not his deeds, but also on his historical actions. I think the latter should be part of any consideration, whether of Pius XII of Alcide de Gasperi or any world leader involved in public life. But then that would open the judgment to critiques from historians, and would mitigate for allowing full access to the wartime archives and a longer time frame to assess them before moving on. Anyway, it seems a muddle. I agree with others that it's best to be a local cultus--and I think John Paul II certainly has an edge with the Poles.

David asksk this issue at the end of his article: ". . . the question of what a modern pope should be a leader of the church or a model of sanctity?"ISTM this shouldn't be an either/or issue. A holy pope is one who does what needs doing, whether that is being a diplomat resisting oppressive governments, or making Church charities more efficient, or rethinking theological issues, or reforming the the hierarchy or reforming the whole Church. Whatever.To answer the question I think we need to ask first: what is saintliness? It seems to me that at least since the 19th century saintliness has to a large extent been confused with piety, with personal religious practices and prayer. Goodl action for others didn't form a big part of the definition, and there was a tendency to a Pharasaical attitude. Today the definition, especially among the young people emphasizes action -- volunteering to help the poor, political action to implement social justice, etc. JP II would score extremely high in this regard.Is sanctity a matter of being a totally good person? Or can a saint be extremely good in some ways but not in others? Consider Pius XII. What he strongly in solidarity with the Jews but unable to do much for them publicly, perhaps out of weakness, perhaps out of circumstances, perhaps both.Then we have to ask: are some virtues more important than others? How holy is a sharp-tongued person who lives for the poor? (Consider Leon Bloy and Dorothy Day.)Complexity, complexity.

The theory of whether the pope(s) should be canonized is one thing.If a Pope is poor at governance but seems personally to be pious, is that enough? I don't think the answefe to that is clear.The current practice seems to operate outside of theory, however, and be driven by making (as Joe G. pointed out) the leader of the Church equal to the man of holiness thus undergirding his power - especially at a time of real issues.Despite the warm and fuzzy coverage by Mr. Allen of BXVI's visit to the Rome synagougue, the Pius XII matter rankles many.There'a report from Ireland on line that BXVI's pastoral to the Irish Church will not deal with Church governance problems.These and other issues cloud Benedict's leadership, which in turn will question his sanctity as the current m.o. of papal canonization proceeds.Thus I think real history as well as theory is important in whether Pius XIII, JPII or BXVI(down the road) are worthy candidates.Beyond all that, of course, is the argument heard several times on other threads that we need more lay and less clergy saints as exemplars.

I agree with jim Pauwels. The Vatican is making canonization into a political mess. It should be returned to the grassroots.When there is sufficient evident of a local cultus, the local bishop should be empowered to make a decision whether to recognize that cultus and add that person to the local calendar. After a certain period, the Vatican could then decide whether to add that person to the universal calendar. Done, finished. The centralization of this process has removed the participation of the people and turned it into a lobbying opportunity far removed from what canonization has meant in the past.And as far as making all the popes official saints, I have some thoughts on that as well

DavidI read the same Vatican statement and had the same reaction you did, I think. It seems to create a rather odd division between a saintly life--a life of heroic virtue lived privately--from a Christian perspective and a morally good life from the perspective of one's being active and doing good in one's sphere of life. It seems to me that one could keep all the Christian rules and that "heroically" and yet be no great pope or bishop or father or mother or physician or nurse or whatever. To be a model, if that is what canonization implies, does it suffice to be heroically pious even though one has performed rather unevenly in an office or role in life, with its peculiar responsibililties, that one has, after all, chosen?

Getting rid of the "miracle magic" attachment to the beatification process would make it more credible in all cases. As J Gannon mentioned above, pope worship is a VERY unattractive facet of contemporary Catholicism. But, if you believe that each pope is the direct result (I do not!) of the Holy Spirit's guidance then you have to ask: would She make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?The answer is obvious: so much for the guidance of the HS is choosing popes.

Could we have a moratorium on all canonizations at least until I die? If not a complete moratorium, then one that covers all the "First World" lands? Yes, I know that this would affect some people worthy of consideration. But I'd be willing to pay that price instead of the steep price we're paying for the rash of saintmakings begun by Pope John Paul II and still in progress.

the evaluation essentially concerns the witness of Christian life that the person showed (his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection) and not the historical impact of all his operative decisions. .... that seems to impose a false division between piety and deeds. Or does it? I think so. How can a person's character not influence their acts?I'm not so happy with the idea of grass-roots acclimation as a way to choose saints either. That's like a popularity contest and I think not such an effective test of actual "goodness". I always remember this funny past article from History House - Water to Wine? I Get Fifteen Percent - Trying to get your local saint publicized was a common sport in the Middle Ages.[4] Widespread veneration brought travelers and money to the town (one has to remember that the saint was dead by this point, and the pilgrims would flock to the shrine and donate money). Some saints, according to the keepers of the shrines, professed a preference for trinkets and baubles, which was a way to get pilgrims to donate jewelry. Clearly, a powerful saint could be parlayed into an economic boon. As such, townspeople held a great affinity for their saint. The local saint's shrine could be viewed like a farm baseball team: local pride ran alongside religious fervor, and opportunities to one-up the town down the road were welcomed. Indeed, every once in awhile townships close to one another held little contests .....

Hi Crystal,I agree that acclamation would probably not work today. I did not mean acclamation; the involvement of the bishop would preclude that.

Hi Deacon Eric,Not criticizing your comment - good post at your blog, BTW. I was thinking about some of the Marian doctrines which I'd read (I think?) have been adopted in part because of popular demand.

Hello Mollie (and All),For me anyway your post is quite timely. I was wondering myself during my six hour drive to my university yesterday just what purpose beatifying and eventually canonizing certain recent popes will serve. If the examples of Pius X, Pius IX and John XIII are any indicator, I suspect that beatifying any more of the recentpopes will have very little if any impact on the lives of most Roman Catholics for at least many years. I think the most important short term effect this would have would be that some parishes and schools would bear the names of the beatified popes, but not much else. For example, there is a Saint Pius X parish and school near where my family live, but I dont think even the parishoners there know much about who Pius X was or why he was canonized. On the other hand, while a great many Roman Catholics love John XXIII, I dont think his beatification in 2000 has led to any increase in interest in his life or devotion to him. Maybe the real benefit of canonizing anyone, pope or otherwise, will be manifested centuries after the beatification. Right now everyone knows that John XXIII was a terribly important pope, but perhaps he would be forgotten in five hundred years were it not for his beatification.Id be happy to be corrected but I suspect that most Catholics ignore announcements of beatifications altogether. (Participants here are exceptions to what I just said, of course.) If I am right, I dont know whether one should count this as a good thing or a bad thing.

The rush to canonize popes is proportionate to the loss of authority that the papacy has experienced since the collapse of the monarchical system towards the end of the 19th century.The papacy is the last absolute monarchy in the West and the only way to preserve its prestige and authority is to elevate the pope as a superior Christian and create an aura around him. The Congregation of Saints should be put out of business. If there is one thing over which the Church of Rome (or human organization) has absolutely no authority -- though it seems Rome has regained jurisdiction over almost everything and everyone else -- is who is currently enjoying the beatific vision and interceding on behalf of us, and who is not. Remember, there is a great urgency to beatify/canonize John Paul II because supporters of his cause are painfully aware how the judgement of time blocked Pius XII from becoming a saint -- he, who among all Supreme Pontiffs, was considered Pastor Angelicus and a shoe-in for saint.JP II, Santo Subito. If not now, then never. Just look at the record. A GREAT pope, but not a very good one. The record speaks for itself.

Cheers, Robert Mickens.

What Mickens wrote.Canonization should be recognized for the farce it is. No Romero. No Day..........

About a cultus ==I have know at least two dozen people who knew St. Katherine Drexel well. Never have I heard the slightest negative comment about her at all, Her influence has been great in this city at least, and I'm sure it's continuing in the lives of those who knew and loved her. My point is that real sanctity is truly appreciated. But without the devil's advocate Rome can never know whether or not a purported saint was really a saint or a good ecclesiasitcal politician.

Hello Robert (and All),Remember, there is a great urgency to beatify/canonize John Paul II because supporters of his cause are painfully aware how the judgement of time blocked Pius XII from becoming a saint he, who among all Supreme Pontiffs, was considered Pastor Angelicus and a shoe-in for saint.I suspect you are spot on about this. Im not offering an opinion of the merits of the cases of either Pius XII or John Paul II myself. But I think that every public figure goes through a spell where her reputation is in doubt and actively attacked, if not during ones lifetime then a few years afterward. Sometimes the attacks are deserved, and sometimes not. John Paul II died at the height of his popularity, as did apparently Pius XII. I have no doubt that in a few years, a number of books will appear that will be harshly critical of John Paul II, same as happened a few years after Pius XII died. Interestingly, John XXIII seems to have had his main hostile critics while he was still alive. As hard as I find this to believe, Ive read that while he was alive a variety of false accusations were raised against John XXIII, including claims that he was a communist.

Hello Bill (and All), No Romero. No Day.Ive admitted on this blog before that I am somewhat irked that Faustina Kowalska is canonized while Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero arent. But maybe it doesnt matter much? I think people revere Day and Romero just as much as if they were already canonized, and so far as I know if one wishes one may ask for the intercession of Romero, Day or anyone else, same as one may ask for the intercession of one who is canonized. (Ill be glad to be corrected if Im wrong.) Again so far as I know, the main practical import of beatification is that one shrine in each country may be established in honor of the beatified individual, and the main practical import of canonization is that parishes may be named after the saint. I mean no disrespect towards any of the people who have been beatified or canonized. Im only claiming (wrongly?) that beatifications and canonizations dont make much of a difference to the lives of most Roman Catholics. The cultus associated with a particular person seems to be largely independent of whether or not this person is beatified or canonized.

Except for the saints who write books which become popular as spiritual guides, It seems to me that the saints who are most popular are those who become patrons of this or that group of people or who become specialists, so to speak, at getting affirmative answers to certain kinds of prayersk. For instance, St. Anthony helps us find lost objects, and St. Jude helps those with lost causes The more a saint "comes through" the more people become fans.

I am patiently waiting for Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, the architect of Vatican I and the chief booster for the declaration on the Infallibility of the Pope, to be canonized.Can someone ask Archbishop Vincent Nichols to get on his case?

FWIW - there are two saints on the Roman calendar today. As it happens, one is a pope, St. Fabian. He was martyred during a persecution in the year 250. The other is another martyr, St. Sebastian. either of these martyrs speak to us today? I suppose there are all sorts of directions for reflection and contemplation here: the persecuted church, the meaning of martyrdom, what it all means for today's church and our own lives. (Mostly, it seems to be an exercise in compare and contrast).Does either life resonate with ours? Is there a still a legitimate cultus for either one, such that one doesn't need to research either one to feel a connection to him? Does inertia account for the fact that these men from 1,800 years ago are stll on the universal calendar Is it important to retain on the calendar these early martyrs, whose legends our age seemingly delights in deconstructing?FWIW - I remembered St. Fabian in morning prayer this morning. Next year on 1/20, I'll remember St. Sebastian if the calendar permits. I don't grab every optional memorial, but I rarely pass up a martyr.

Does either life resonate with ours? Is there a still a legitimate cultus for either one, such that one doesnt need to research either one to feel a connection to him?I can say yes to Sebastian, anyway: last night at RCIA we started talking about patron saints and Confirmation names, and one of our catechumens said his favorite saint was Sebastian. He didn't elaborate on why, but I do know Sebastian enjoys some enduring fame/devotion as the patron saint of athletes. (His gruesome attempted-execution-by-arrow was a very popular subject for Medieval/Renaissance artists, which is why I know who he is.)

Peter, Dorothy Day may not be canonized yet, but I seem to recall that she already has a stained glass window in a lovely little alcove of "New York Saints" in the Providence College Chapel. I suspect it was funded by some of the many NYC alums. Mollie, as to St. Sebastian, I was recently confronted with the prospect of a stereotactic core needle biopsy to be performed with a spring-loaded needle the size of a ball point pen. All turned out well, and the procedure was not at all as as alarming as it sounded from the internet descriptions I pored over before the fact. But those medieval paintings did come to mind....

"The Congregation of Saints should be put out of buisness."Yikes! I was counting on them to help me get to Heaven.

The Communion of Saints will still be operative, Nancy, don't worry.

Hello Susan (and All),Thanks very much for the information regarding Providence College. I did not know that it's ever permitted to have a permanent image on display in a Roman Catholic Church of anyone who isn't beatified. But I hope I will have the opportunity to visit this chapel someday.

Peter, in our cathedral here in Los Angeles we have images of Mother Teresa and John XXIII in our "Communion of Saints" tapestries -- both included before they were beatified.

The Cult of the saints is an ancient and noble part of the Catholic tradition. It also unfolded in a very complex fashion over the centuries. Would it be too self serving for me to recommend my own book on this subject: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAINTS (Oxofrd: Blackwell, 2005)?

I meant Oxford.

Robert Mickens is spot on when he writes that the congregations of saints should go out of business. The cult of the saints is basically a fourth century creation and centered on martyrs. This cult multiplied principally because people who were now called Christians were for the most part opportunists. Bishops who theretofore were willing to die for their faith succumbed to an emperor and let him call and manage the Council of bishops. Veneration of saints multiplied, as did their bodies, (every town had the body of the same saint) because since the religion now became politically expedient it was necessary to visit the past in order to visit those who practiced Christianity. Robert Marcus called this "The Age of Hypocrisy, as well it was. Here are Marcus' comments:"As saints became ubiquitous, they also changed their functions. In theearly Christian community the living faithful prayed to God for their dead;now the dead saint is asked to pray for the living: a whole new liturgy cameinto being. As the martyr is , literally, detached from the place of hismartyrdom and made present wherever his relics have become the center of acult, so relics began to be seen in a new way.....relics soon becamethemselves, the seats of holy power, God's preferred channels for miraculousaction. A new nexus of social relationships centered around their shrines;their cult provided ways of securing social cohesion in the locality, andone of the means on which bishops depended to consolidate their authority."The Oxford History of Christianity.pg90.More or less what much of the churches still have today. A lot of superstition lacking in the values of the gospel.

In some ways, the least explicable figure amont those ex-popes awaiting canonization, may well be Pius IX. Though 19th century Europe is hardly my historical specialty, I've done some study in the period, and I think it would be quite easy to make an argument that it was Pio Nono -- not Darwin, not Marx, or anyone else -- who was the most responsible for the Church's plummeting fortunes in the period, and whose legacy lives on to harm it. Perhaps when those who lead the Church realize they might study their own history of discover the rise of what they are wont to dismiss as "secularism," they might find that the Church played no small role in that rise. But perhaps harming the Church is not enough to derail a train on the canonization track.Incidentally, in the days when Montreal had a major league team -- the Expos -- the way to get to the Stade Olympique, where they played their games, was to ride the Metro to the stop called Pie Neuf. Clifford Longley, in a recent issue of the Tablet, had an article on the need for "miracles" to confirm a saint's readiness for canonization. He clearly does not like it, and neither do I.

Hello Nicholas (and All),I agree with you. One would have thought that Pius IXs negative attitude towards the Jewish people alone would have disqualified him for beatification. But that was John Paul IIs call, and a pope is not obligated to explain why he beatifies anyone. (I find John Paul IIs beatification of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor Karl equally inexplicable, but again, that was his prerogative.)But now that Pius IX is beatified I think it would be hard to argue that any of his successors who havent yet been beatified should not be beatified.

Are the eccentricities of John Paul II to become the norm of papal behavior? Consider his claim that Edith Stein was a Christian martyr although in fact she was murdered only because she was Jewish. On the subject of Pio Nono do not forget the Mortara scandal--see the Wikipedia for details--which earned Pio Nono well deserved condemnation by many in Europe.

"The rush to canonize popes is proportionate to the loss of authority that the papacy has experienced since the collapse of the monarchical system towards the end of the 19th century.Thank you, Robert Mickens. It is all about power, not principle or sanctity.After Escriva, Pio Nino, Edith Stein as Christian martyr, much less Pius XII, etc. the disconnect with reality is well established. Canonization loses its meaning in the end.

It seems to me that many people need to pray to a god, godlet, or saint or just someone who understands the person's particular problems and needs. In Louisiana after Huey Long's assassination there were even some home shrines complete with votive lights dedicated to him. And, of course, there are the gods of Hinduism and those of many primitive religions. Given belief in the communion of saints, I find it only natural that we should have such devotions, and it seems to me belief in saints and their ability to pray with and for us is quite sound theologically. The problem is to discover just who the saints are. One way -- theoretically anyway -- is to find which "saints" seem to persuade the Lord to grant the most petitions. If you're too sohistocated to believe that this can happen then this argument has no weight, of course. I also suspect that the downplaying of miracles these days has something to do with the falling away of so many Catholics. I once asked my doctor if he had ever seen what must have been a miraculous cure. He claimed that all doctors have. I'd be interested in hearing what your doctors' would say if asked. Maybe we could talk about this this on the blog sometime.

I mean it might be interesting to talk about Catholic belief in miracles and about the possible usefuless of praying to saints.

I think we need to increase the number of canonizations of popes, etc. --- in order to demostrate just how foolhardy the whole "saint-makin'" enterprise is!!!I propose, instead, naming parishes after their locations, e.g., Fourth Avenue Catholic Church, Southeast Catholic Community, The Catholic Community of Podunk, etc.I'd even allow for restricting the names of saints to those found in the New Testament.Or a hybrid of above, e.g., St. Mary's Church of Southwest Podunk, the Catholic Community of San Jose in the Barrio.But a parish/school named after JPII???No way, as he coddled a known clerical pervert!

" am patiently waiting for Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, the architect of Vatican I and the chief booster for the declaration on the Infallibility of the Pope, to be canonized."If there is any singular issue to DENY sainthood to Manning, the farce of infallibility of the pope is it.

Carolyn Disco is correct ----Would you be free from the need to lead?Theres power in control, power in control;Would you oer pastoring a victory succeed?Theres wonderful power in control.RefrainThere is power, power, self-stroking powerIn control of the lambs;There is power, power, self-stroking powerIn total control of the Lambs.Would you enjoy your passion and pride?Theres power in control, power in control;All those pretty gowns that come with the ride;Theres wonderful power in control.RefrainWould you be brighter, much brighter than snow?Theres power in control, power in control;Guilt stains are lost no matter where you go.Theres wonderful power in control.RefrainWould you avoid service to the flock that you lead?Theres power in control, power in control;Would you have them daily your praises to sing?Theres wonderful power in control.(With apologies to There Is Power in the Blood by Lewis E. Jones)

The rush to canonize popes is proportionate to the loss of authority that the papacy has experienced..."Couldn't this be because Popes are chosen for something other than their desire for temporal power? I am not denying that there is politics involved in selecting a Pope, but the issues are more spiritual now than they once were. Can anyone imagine an intervention by the Emperor comparable to the one that led to Pius X's election? It was secular authorities who locked the cardinals in a conclave to begin with.To put it another way, how much would Democrats or Republicans care if the Presidency became a purely 'executive' position, with no power to suggest legislation or influence much of anything in the country? Competency as managers would become more important then political positions. So it has been in Rome; while one's patriotism and strength was once an issue, now one's devotion to the Eucharist and ability to inspire has become dominant. The saintly person is more likely to garner votes for his sanctity today than he would have in the past, when the position had more to do with civic power. As authority waned, selection drifted toward the holy.

"...[N]ow one's devotion to the Eucharist and ability to inspire has become dominant. The saintly person is more likely to garner votes for his sanctity today than he would have in the past, when the position had more to do with civic power."I'm not a historian of the papacy, but I see today (as I saw during JPII's reign) a determined effort to stifle the ecclesial renewal called for by the world's bishops at Vatican II. I detected then --- and continue to see today --- a strong papal desire for centralized control. This desire is most manifest in B16's efforts to "traditionalize" the liturgy by stressing the role of the ordained. He who controls the liturgy --- the central reality and focus of the Catholic Church --- controls the laity, at least those willing to "pray, pay, obey."Power is power, regardless. Even without the papal states, popes have temporal influence within and outside the institutional church. It can be used for good or ill.Not everybody is convinced of JPII or B16's good intentions vis-a-vis ecclesial matters. Perception is reality.

I agree that Popes may still desire power, but it is a very different kind of power now. They may wish to "control the laity" but that is far from the same as wishing to control the Empire. Fighting wars to protect the Papal states is not the same as issuing a new missal, though there may be some similarities.Energies are no longer poured into Italian and European politics the way they once were. How do the Spanish and the Portuguese coordinate their missions? Is the French King more important than the Spanish? Now the distinctions among candidates have to do with their spiritualities. Does he prefer facing East during the Eucharist? Is communion in the hand preferable to on the tongue?People pondering the latter are more likely to think of sanctity than those considering the former.

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