It was said that Pope John Paul II of blessed memory was responsible for creating a ‘saint factory’, meaning that he created more official saints than all of the previous Pontiffs combined. Now Pope Francis stands suspected of throwing open the heavenly gates even further. In July he issued a ‘Motu Proprio
’, an apostolic letter in which he establishes a new road to sainthood, namely, the free sacrificing of one’s life in love to others. ‘The selfless offering of life, suggested and sustained by charity, expresses a true, full and exemplary imitation of Christ”, he said. That may sound beautifully inclusive but…there are problems.
In the early Christian centuries the martyrs were the first saints to be publicly venerated by the faithful. Later the practice was extended to Confessors and Virgins – those who had suffered for the faith but not necessarily died for it.
Today the Catholic Church lays down certain rules for attaining ‘the glory of the altar’, or sainthood. The candidate, called a ‘Servant of God’, has to live a life of heroic
virtue (not just being ‘a good chap’), have a
reputation for holiness and, last but not least, one or more physical miracles must be attributed to his intercession.
A rigorous and long Vatican investigation then checks on the candidates’ credentials. Note that St Pio da Pietralcina, a famous Franciscan friar who bore on his body the marks of the crucifixion of Christ, was at times suspected of being a fake until finally cleared by Pope Pius XII. On a lighter note, St Dominic of Guzman’s canonisation might have been blocked when it transpired that the Servant of God had once said that he preferred the company of young women to that of old ones.
The new path launched by Francis states that the candidate’s virtues may not be heroic but ordinary. Of course, most people are not heroes. Saints, however, are not quite ordinary. Holiness is by definition a special, extraordinary quality, one that sets people apart. In history, many men and women witnessed to their faith with their blood. Holy women like St Maria Goretti died to defend their chastity. Others endured agonising tests and trials in their fidelity to God. Ordinary folks they certainly were not.
Moreover, what does ‘giving one’s life in charity for others mean?’ Does it include firemen, soldiers, policemen and countless others who gave their lives to save other people? A lifeguard, for example, may drown while rescuing another person from drowning. A brave man, but…a saint? Also, there is a distinction between ‘dying for Christ’ and ‘dying as Christ did’ – selflessly, for others. The latter case might include all sorts of individuals. Scores of altruists who nonetheless may not be Christians at all or indeed be unbelievers. How could they be enlisted as Christian saints?
Perhaps seeking to parry such objections, the Pope’s Motu Proprio says that possible candidates must have practised ‘Christian values’ in their lives. Fine but some such values are not exclusive or limited to Christians alone. It is conceivable that a pregnant Jewish woman, for instance, might refuse a certain medical treatment in order to protect the life of her unborn child. That is a sacrifice countenanced by Catholic moral theology. You might call that an example of a Christian value. Would that, therefore, make her a Christian saint? Liberal-minded persons may answer affirmatively but might it not be offensive to Jews to announce to them: ‘We consider you a Christian saint’?
Not all Churches are as bureaucratic or formalistic as the Roman Church in matters of canonisation. Traditionally, Eastern Orthodox Churches have followed a more ‘laid back’ procedure. What was required above all was the existence of a definite veneration for the departed candidate by the local people. Then a number of bishops would hold a synod and, after an informal inquiry, recognise the popular veneration as proof of the person’s holiness. Their decision would then be notified to the whole Church. The idea is that the Church only sanctions what the local Christians have already decided. Canonisation from the bottom up, so to speak. (Rome too, in rare cases, accepts popular devotion among the people as a basis for canonisation but the final decision rests with the Pope.)
Still, there should be no moral doubt as to the candidate’s heroic faith. Thus, Thomas a Kempis, writer of the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, was never canonised. Why? When his grave was opened years later it was discovered that he had been buried by mistake while still alive. The ecclesiastical authorities could never be certain that when Thomas woke up in his coffin he would not have spent his last hours in the darkest despair.
Of course, Francis will have his way, because the Pope has the authority to assert his will (like many liberals, Francis is known for a
wilful and authoritarian streak.) Still, it is important to remember that the Church’s declaration of sainthood does not, strictly speaking, make anyone a saint. That prerogative is God’s alone. Only he can really create a saint. There must have been many very holy men and women who were never canonised because their cases never reached the Church’s attention, or indeed, because they were misrepresented or traduced. Only God knows them. Conversely, some official saints may, at the Last Judgment, turn out to have been less than holy. God indeed knows best.