Life, etc

Rome: Explaining the city of saints

By Russell Pollitt 23 April 2014

Hotels in the Eternal City are booked out this week and city officials expect up to one million people to gather as Pope Francis canonises Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday 27 April. The mass which will be celebrated for the canonisations is scheduled to take place in St. Peter’s Square outside the Basilica, where the mortal remains of the two men rest. Thousands are expected to watch the proceedings on big screens which will be erected in Rome while millions more will follow on television around the world. Why would people spend money travelling across the globe to Rome? What is the Church actually doing when it has a canonisation? Why are these two men being canonised and does it really have any meaning today? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Canonisation is the act by which the Christian Church declares somebody to be a saint and their names, therefore, can be included in the official canon or list of saints. In the early Church individuals were recognised as saints without any formal processes. The local community, having lived with someone, called them a saint after their death because they believed that these men and women lived holy lives – they were exemplary in virtue. The first people honoured as saints were the early Christian martyrs. In the medieval period Rome was asked to intervene in the question of canonisations so as to ensure a more authoritative decision. In 1983 Pope John Paul II issued norms for the canonisation of saints in which he tried to simplify a process that had evolved to be complex. Possibly, as a result of this, the number of canonisations since 1983 has increased rapidly – John Paul II himself canonised 483 saints in his pontificate.

There are four “steps” which were established in the process of canonisation from the norms issued by John Paul II. These, briefly, are:

  • “Servant of God” – a bishop or someone with local jurisdiction opens an investigation into the life of an individual which investigates their virtue. This is normally done at the request of the local faithful and no less than five years after the person’s death. Their writings, life and accounts of eye witnesses are all taken into account. When this is done the “Servant of God” is presented by the local bishop to the Roman Curia for further investigation. The Curia appoints an “investigator” (or postulator) who will examine the evidence presented and continue to investigate the person’s life. The Pope has the power to waiver the five year wait – this is what previous Pope, Benedict XVI, chose to do in the case of John Paul II.
  • “Venerable/Heroic in virtue” – after further investigation the postulator may recommend to the Pope that the person is declared “venerable” in virtue. This means that they have displayed the virtues of faith, hope and charity. A “Venerable” person does not have a feast day ascribed to them and no church may be built in his/her honour.
  • “Blessed” – this is the next step in which the Church states that believers can hold that someone is in heaven. If the person was a martyr (someone who died for their belief) the Pope only has to make a declaration of martyrdom for the person to be called “Blessed”. If the person is a non-martyr then it needs to be proven that a miracle has taken place by his or her intercession. Today these are almost always recognised as “miraculous cures” through the intercession of the Venerable. These cures are normally inexplicable, there was no known cure and doctors cannot find any natural explanation. A feast day can be ascribed to a “Blessed” but this is normally only celebrated in the area that the person was from. No churches are named after them.
  • “Saint” – to be canonised a saint there must be at least two miracles performed through the person’s intercession after their death – one more miracle is needed after being declared “Blessed.” The Church therefore declares that the person is certainly with God, their feast day may be celebrated anywhere in the world and churches can be named after them. They are now included on the official list of saints.

A “canonisation” is therefore an official declaration by the Church that a person attempted to live a holy life and that the attitudes and virtues they displayed are examples for all Christians everywhere. To be canonised does not mean that someone is “perfect.” Saints are not the only holy people either. There are many men and women who lived holy lives, some we may even have known, yet they are not “official” saints. They may be venerated as holy in a particular location by local people who uphold them for their virtue, they too are righteous and important to a particular people. The process of canonisation is the Church’s way of putting before us men and women who can and will hopefully encourage and remind believers that our highest aspirations really are within our grasp.

That said, both men who will be canonised on Sunday have not been strictly subjected to the process described above. Benedict XVI waived the five-year wait in the case of John Paul II and Pope Francis chose to canonise John XXII without there being a second miracle.

John XXIII (born Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli) was elected Pope on 28 October 1958. He was beatified by John Paul II in 2000. He shocked the Church and the world when he called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to address the relationship between the Church and the modern world as well as renew the Church itself. John XXII said that it was time to open the windows of the Church to let fresh air in. He did not live to see the end of the Council he called; he died on 7 June 1963 of stomach cancer. John XXIII was known for his outstanding charity. He visited orphanages, hospitals and prisons in Rome and could not understand why the Press were so interested in this; he thought he was just doing his job as bishop of Rome. The Papacy in John’s time was rigid and in many ways pompous. John was not pompous; his unpretentiousness was disarming as he humbly did what he thought best. He was open to people of all races, nations, creeds and walks of life because his heart simply went out to them with great love. He showed immense courage in trying to steer a Church in turmoil into the modern world. Pope Francis described him as “a man who let himself be guided by the Lord.”

John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyla) was pope from 1978 to 2005. He was the second-longest serving pope in history and the first non-Italian since 1523. He was beatified on 1 May 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul was known as the “globetrotter” pope; he visited 129 countries in his pontificate. Pope Francis called him “a great missionary of the Church because he proclaimed the Gospel everywhere”. John Paul II is recognised as one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century who helped bring down communist rule in his native Poland and eventually in Europe. He attempted to improve relationships between Christians, Jews, Muslims, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Anglican Communion. John Paul is recalled for his lesson in forgiveness when he visited the prison and pardoned the man who attempted to assassinate him, Mehmet Ali Agca, in St Peters Square in 1981. John Paul is upheld for his teachings on the dignity of the human person and his willingness to stand against the exploitation of human beings and decadent materialism. At his funeral in 2005 groups within the crowd were already calling out “Santo Subito!” (“Saint now!” in Italian). Many, inside and outside the Church, recognise him as a saint for our times.

This does not mean that both of these men were without fault or sin. In both cases people within and without the Church have critiqued the decision to canonise them. Some commentators have suggested that Rome chose to canonise the two together as an attempt to unify a Church beset with divisions since each has his own admirers and critics. John XXII is often upheld by so-called “liberals” in the Church for his progressive vision while John Paul II is the choice of the “conservatives” for his more conservative approach.

Both men are quite different in style and led the Church in very different times. They came from very different backgrounds (John Italian and John Paul Polish) and contexts and certainly were very different personalities. They had different intellectual persuasions and operated out of different theological models. Yet both men would also be the first to admit that they were far from perfect; each had his faults and blind spots which will no doubt go down in history along with his virtues. The important thing is not which one appeals to whom or, why one might be more important than the other. Matt Malone, editor of the Jesuit publication America Magazine, says that for believers “… this joint canonisation reminds us that the goal of Christian living is not to be right, but to be holy. The goal is not to possess the truth but to be possessed by the one who is truth, the one who is the way and the truth and the life.”

We don’t forget the faults of those we call saints, but we do remember their virtues; their desires to be better people and make our world a better place. They encourage us to do the same. They remind us that we are all a mixed bag of virtue and vice. It’s our willingness to live as best we can from our virtue that’s important. It’s our striving to live virtue that makes us great and, hopefully, inspires others to be the best they can be. The sheer numbers expected to follow this event, globally, utters something about the longing of the human spirit for greatness despite weakness, for hope and inspiration. DM

Photo: On a warm and sunny day and in front of thousands of pilgrims packed into St. Peter’s Square Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi blessing for Rome and the world from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica Vatican City, 20 April 2014. EPA/HO

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