John Paul II?
(the canonization process, and why it matters)
May 13, the new pope, Benedict XVI, announced that he was dispensing
with normal saint-making rules in the case of Pope
John Paul II, his predecessor and mentor. There are three major
steps in the process of making a saint in the Roman Catholic
Church: the opening of a formal case, beatification, and canonization.
Benedict XVI is lifting the restriction of waiting
five years before announcing that a case has been opened for
of John Paul.
the tenth century, there has always been a waiting period before
a person’s case for sainthood can be opened, but
the duration has differed from era to era. Until 1917, the customary
waiting period was fifty years after the person’s death—so
that those who had known the subject would also likely be dead.
The waiting period was seen as a way to lend objectivity to a
process that had, in the early church, been based primarily on
But on several occasions a pope has accelerated the cause of
a saint because of a personal relationship he had with the person.
Perhaps most famously, Francis of Assisi’s special counselor,
Cardinal Ugolino, who was elected Pope Gregory IX just after
Francis's death, presided over his
rapid canonization only two years later.
Another rapid canonization that was known throughout Europe
was that of Thomas Becket in 1173, less than three years
martyrdom in the cathedral at Canterbury. In that case, Pope
Alexander III, Becket’s friend and confidante during the
latter’s many conflicts with King Henry II, oversaw a quick
canonization to satisfy the people of England and Europe, as
well as the millions of pilgrims who had already made Canterbury
a principal place for pilgrimage. Only one year after Becket’s
canonization, the guilty king made his own pilgrimage to the
shrine of the saint he had had murdered.
More recently, Pope John Paul II sped along the process for
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, his friend and contemporary. Mother
was beatified two years after her death. Her canonization is
In today’s Church, the customary waiting period is five
years after the death of the faithful one before the process
may officially begin and a case be opened. It begins with
the pope receiving recommendations for possible beatifications
dioceses. An appointed team of diocesan leaders and Vatican
officials then investigates the life of the proposed candidate,
recommendations for the opening of a case in a process that
resembles the preparing of legal briefs. The formal opening
of a case is the first step toward sainthood. Only the pope
can make the decision to open a case.
second step for John Paul II, or any potential saint, is beatification.
This process involves
the gathering, reviewing,
and authenticating of miracles attributed to his intercession.
These are usually healings from physical illnesses, because such
miracles are the most easily corroborated by medical and theological
authorities. As soon as one miracle can be affirmed by the Congregation
for the Causes of Saints - the Vatican organization set up to
handle saint-matters - the way is clear for the pope to declare
John Paul “blessed.”
Canonization is the third step in the process. A second, attested
miracle is necessary for canonization.
Thérèse of Lisieux (d. 1897) had the quickest
canonization in the modern era, but she may soon be surpassed
by both Mother Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II. Thérèse
was declared a saint in 1925, only twenty-eight years after her
Why does it Matter?
Catholics are the standard-bearers of saints. The Catholic
approach is the most
thorough, and it means the
most. To be a saint in the Catholic hierarchy is to be with God
in heaven without question. In other words, a saint is known
with certainty to be available for prayer and assistance. Saints
advocate for us before God; they help us in particular areas
of life—that’s what patron saints do; they are cheering
us on along our various paths of salvation.
Anglicans, and some Lutherans and Presbyterians also have
saints. In many cases, a saint on the Roman Catholic
calendar will match one on these other lists, as well. For example,
saints Athanasius, Basil the Great, Helena, and Polycarp are
all shared by Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions.
Christians of non-Catholic, non-Orthodox traditions, however,
do not use the saints very well. Lutherans and Presbyterians
tend to simply “hold up” these exemplary figures
as worthy of special recognition, rather than incorporate them
more fully into their spiritual lives and worship.
The Trouble with Posthumous Miracles
talking about the canonization of saints, it's important to
highlight one important distinction.
Some saints are canonized
for their work on earth, while others are canonized for their “work” after
death. Mother Teresa is a recent prime example of the first category.
Like Francis of Assisi before her, Mother Teresa lived such an
obviously saintly life - completely for other people and for
God - that if she had lived during the first centuries of Christianity,
she would have been venerated as a saint immediately upon her
saints only become known after their deaths. These figures
seem to owe as much of their popularity
to the earnestness of their
believers as they
do to the real presence of sanctity. St. Foy—a child
martyr from the Roman era—is one such saint. Her relics
have drawn pilgrims to a remote monastery in Conques, France,
reliquary that holds her bones is made of gold and studded with
jewels, a masterpiece of Gothic art that is carefully protected
today. Her posthumous deeds and healing powers have inspired
poets. Often St. Foy is said to have performed these miracles “in
person,” as a spirit entering the natural world
in order to help someone in need. These events include the restoration
of a man’s eyes after they had been torn from his head,
the reviving of a mule from death, the murder of a man who was
slandering Foy, and the freeing of a man bound for hanging. The
list goes on and on of miracles that seem more like magic tricks
than true sanctity.
Like Mother Teresa, John Paul II was also a saint of the earthly
sort. His life and deeds were clear indicators of his passion
for Christ and dedication to others. One wishes that we could
make him a saint without the machinations of what he might be
up to in heaven.
Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living
in Vermont. His latest book is
THE LURE OF SAINTS: A PROTESTANT EXPERIENCE
OF CATHOLIC TRADITION. More
by Jon Sweeney.