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May 24, 2005

Saint John Paul II?
(the canonization process, and why it matters)

by Jon M. Sweeney

On 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 the consideration of John Paul.

Since 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 popular opinion.
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 after his 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 Teresa was beatified two years after her death. Her canonization is still underway.

The Process
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 from local dioceses. An appointed team of diocesan leaders and Vatican officials then investigates the life of the proposed candidate, reviewing 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.

The 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 death.

Why does it Matter?
Traditionally, 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.

Orthodox, 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
In 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 death.

Other 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, for centuries. The 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

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