Santo? Dubito

Too Many Popes Are Being Canonized
Pope Francis officially proclaims John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints at the Vatican April 27, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Dear Pope Francis, I have an idea. You know how you keep advancing the sainthood causes of all your predecessors? What if you stopped doing that?

That’s my idea. It’s pretty simple: Just stop making every pope a saint. Instead of canonizing Paul VI this year, as you are reportedly planning to do, I suggest…not doing that.

As you know, in 2014, a year after you became pope (and not even ten years after the death of John Paul II), you canonized Popes John XIII and John Paul II on the very same day. And now I read in the paper that Paul VI is on the docket for 2018, and my first response is to joke, “Who’s next, St. John Paul I?” But it turns out I can’t make that joke, because you officially recognized John Paul I as “Venerable” just a few months ago.

Is it possible you’re getting a little carried away?

It’s not that I have anything against these men as individuals. Who am I to judge? It’s just that it seems like a pretty big coincidence for all of the popes since Pius XII—ahem, Venerable Pius XII—to have been men of uncommon heroic virtue. You must agree that, in theory, a non-saintly person could become pope. I will go so far as to say that it has happened before. So, if the modern church really has managed to elect an unbroken string of papal saints in the past century, well, that’s impressive, but considering that the pope is the one who gets to make that call, it’s also a bit...suspect.

The thing about popes is that they are already in the Catholic hall of fame.

The thing about popes is that they are already in the Catholic hall of fame. They are prayed for by name at every single Mass while they are alive. When they die, they are buried in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s. Their writings are hosted on the Vatican website. The faithful can venerate them very easily whenever they are so moved. Making past popes saints and giving them feast days feels like gilding the lily. And you, Pope Francis, are not usually a lily-gilder.

If I may indulge in a little self-promotion (which, under the circumstances, seems reasonable): I contributed a chapter to a new book from Liturgical Press, A Pope Francis Lexicon, in which I wrote about your use of the term “worldliness.” You have warned in very strong words about the dangers of “spiritual worldliness,” which you define as seeking “human glory and personal well-being” under the guise of piety. In Evangelii gaudium, you quoted Jesus scolding the Pharisees: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”

I’m not saying that the current pope canonizing all the other popes is necessarily an example of this. But it isn’t not an example of it, either. And it’s definitely not an example of what you prescribe as an antidote for worldliness: “making the church constantly go out from herself” to seek Christ at the margins of society. You advocate leaving our comfort zones, expanding our ideas of where and how God is working in the world.

Naming new saints can be an excellent way to promote that shift in perspective. Your record proves it. You have advanced the cause of Oscar Romero (it’s about time) and declared the Algerian monks of Tibhirine to be martyrs. These are inspiring, challenging examples of holiness. At your direction, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints could shift its focus to elevating other overlooked models of discipleship, especially those belonging to groups underrepresented in the official roll: women, laypeople, married people, parents.

But do we need more popes? There are an awful lot of sainted popes already. The first thirty popes, in fact, are all saints. They also all died in defense of the faith. And while it’s definitely a good thing that popes are no longer automatic martyrs, I’m not convinced that it’s a good thing for them to be automatic saints. And so, Your Holiness, I hope you won’t take it the wrong way when I express my earnest hope that you will ultimately be neither.

Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: 

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

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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