Should popes be canonised?
Before the end of the year we’ll be talking about St John Paul II and St John XXIII. Pope Francis has announced that he intends a joint canonisation ceremony for the two popes who have most influenced the direction of the Catholic Church in the last half century. And Vatican observers have pencilled in a date before the end of the year.
The decision reflects, above all, the effort of Pope Francis to reconcile a divided Church, one part of which hero-worships Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII) for his role in pointing the Church in a new direction through the Second Vatican Council; and the other which hero-worships Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) for his efforts (among other things) to stem the tide of change unleashed by John XXIII and the Council. For Pope Francis, it’s an exercise in bringing the two sides of the road (of the Church) with him. Or like James Joyce’s famous dog, going a bit of the road with everyone.
That’s an admirable intention because the Church was probably never as divided as it is now. Naturally, while we don’t like emphasising the division and prefer (sometimes piously) to paper over the cracks, the gap is all too clear, not least in the separate planets that orbit around one another and that seldom seem to intersect. While Francis clearly is on the side of John XXIII, he recognises the need to keep the John Paul supporters on side. Hence, the dual sainthoods.
While Francis has inherited a situation where the two canonisations were already in process and has to deal with them, many Catholics I suspect would have been happier if he had consigned both causes to limbo. We’ve had a lot of pope-saints, 84 in all to date. So it’s nothing new. But in terms of the history of the Catholic Church this new-found enthusiasm for pope-saints seems out of kilter with the tradition of recent centuries.
By ‘recent’ I mean the last 900 years or so. In that time only five popes have been sainted. And since the Church decided it made sense to set down specific regulations governing canonisation, only two popes have been declared saints: Pius V (1712) and Pius X (1954).
One of the specific regulations about sainthood is that the process cannot be initiated until fifty years after the death of the proposed saint. Or it was. For Pius X that rule was conveniently set aside and that’s the main cause of the present spectacle.
During my life there have been seven popes. John Paul I died after a few weeks, so he scarcely counts. Benedict XVI and Francis I are still alive. That leaves four and of that four, one (Pius XII) cause is still in process and two (John XXIII and John Paul II) are in the winning straight. So how come, in the space of half a century, that three popes are on track for sainthood when in the last 900 years only five made it over the line?
The second cause of the present unedifying rush to canonise popes was the decision of John Paul II to cut the fifty-year waiting period to five years; and the third cause was Benedict XVI dispensing with the five-year rule to allow the canonisation process of John Paul II to proceed a mere month after his death.
This shuffling with the rules brings the whole canonisation process into disrepute. As Robert Mickens points out in a recent Tablet, the wisdom of waiting half a century is to see if the devotion to the sainthood candidate stands the test of time. Sainthood is more complex and long-term than popularity. If popularity was all that mattered the Church would have been left with some very strange ‘saints’ indeed.
My own view is that the regulations governing sainthood should be very stringent and should apply equally to everyone. And a second view is that popes should be excluded from the process altogether, apart from ensuring that the rules are ruthlessly applied.
Popes are like parish priests. They inevitably fail to live up to the conflicting expectations of those entrusted to their care. And when they come to the end of that service, if they die there was never a Pope or PP like them; but if they retire or move on to another parish they are mainly remembered for what they got wrong.
Which is why no one, at present it seems, has a good word to say for poor Benedict XVI. If he had died in office and the usual outpouring of grief had attended his funeral in Rome, no doubt there would be chants (as during the funeral of John Paul II) to ‘make him a saint’. The fact that he just retired has relegated his status to that of an interesting phenomenon for an unusual photo-shoot or the family equivalent an elderly uncle no one seems to know what to do with.
It seems prudent that both popes and PPs should be excluded from sainthood – not indeed that there’s much of a queue of prospective saint-PPs. But both inhabit quasi-political worlds where appearances can be as important as action and where compromise is the order of the day. A 50-year waiting period will place the reputation of pope and PP in due perspective. What do you (or what can any parish) recall of a PP who served fifty years ago? Very little, as we say, if anything at all.