On April 27th, Pope Francis will canonize two new saints, both former popes: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The event will likely draw millions of the faithful (and the curious) to Rome to witness the ceremony.
To formally recognize someone as a “saint,” for Roman Catholics, is to acknowledge, with certainty, that the canonized is in heaven because of the distinctively holy way in which s/he lived her or his earthly life. The Church thus does not create saints. It recognizes them.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.”
To become canonized, a candidate must pass through four stages after death, a typically long process overseen by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints: 1) being identified as a “Servant of God” (an initiative that often emerges from the popular piety of communities where the potential saint lived and worked), 2) being identified as “venerable,” which means that the candidate has demonstrated a life of heroic virtue in both deed and thought, 3) being declared as “blessed,” which means that the Church has determined after careful examination that at least one miracle can be attributed to her/his intercession, and 4) being canonized, which is the same as being declared a saint (being canonized also usually requires the confirmation of an additional miracle, which constitutes proof that the canonized is in heaven). Both Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are on the verge of this final step.
What to make of the two men who will soon become the newest saints? Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in a poor village in northern Italy, is best known for surprising the Church—and the world—by convening Vatican II, a monumental event that forever changed the Church’s liturgy, worship, and engagement with the contemporary world. He was dubbed “The Good Pope” for his kind spirit and remarkable capacity to bring deeply divergent factions together.
John XXIII’s sainthood has been in the works for a long time (he died in 1963) and has not generated any significant controversy along the way, except, perhaps, for the fact that Pope Francis reduced the “two miracle requirement” to one so that he could canonize John XXIII and John Paul II in the same ceremony.
John Paul II, on the other hand, has had a remarkably fast ascent to canonization since his death in 2005. While there continues to be broad and passionate support for him both inside and outside of the Church—many point to his pivotal role in defeating Communism, tireless travel schedule even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, indefatigable defense of the dignity of all human life, especially in its most vulnerable forms (a value he distinctively embodied by never hiding the ravages of his disease from the public), and his profound personal piety as confirmation of his heroic virtue—his canonization is not without controversy.
A recent article in the Daily Beast, for example, identifies several groups of Catholics and non-Catholics who argue that Church should slow the process of ascertaining the former pope’s sainthood. Many Catholics, according to the article, do not object to the canonization of John Paul II on principle, but believe that the Church, an institution otherwise known for moving at a deliberately glacial pace, should not rush to judgment in the recognition of new saints.
Others object on principle. Groups like the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in the United States and several similar international organizations contend that John Paul II did not do enough to prevent and respond to sexual abuse crises as these unfolded in many dioceses across the globe, particularly in the case of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, the high profile founder of the order of the Legion of Christ who was credibly accused of sexually abusing seminarians and fathering numerous children during John Paul II’s papacy.
Degollado had a close relationship with the pope—a relationship, critics argue, that allowed him to avoid investigation and subsequent punishment until after John Paul II’s death. Whether or not John Paul knew about the charges of abuse brought against Degollado is still unclear, and perhaps always will be. (The Church has firmly denied that John Paul had any knowledge of these, or any other, incidents of abuse.)
What is certain is that there will be two new saints come April 27th, joining the ranks of thousands of others. It will be a grand, celebratory event. And though he will certainly eschew it, at least some of the attention will also be on the canonizer, Pope Francis—to many, a likely future saint himself.
Latza Nadeau, Barbie. “The Seedy Side of Sainthood: Was Pope John II Canonized Too Fast?” The Daily Beast, April 17, 2014. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/17/the-seedy-side-of-sainthood-was-john-paul-ii-canonized-too-fast.html.
Beccari, Camillo. "Beatification and Canonization." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Accessed April 22, 2014.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02364b.htm.
The Holy See. Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
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To read previous issues of Sightings, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.
Author, Matthew Petrusek, (Ph.D. Religious Ethics, 2013, University of Chicago Divinity School) is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.