John Paul II: The Insta-Saint?

My blogging confrere Pat Archbold currently has a post in which he looks at the question of how quickly saints get minted and, though he doesn’t name him, whether John Paul II’s cause for sainthood should proceed quite so fast a clip.

The question of how saints are canonized, how the process should work, and how long it should take is something that has long interested me, so I thought I’d chime in and offer a few thoughts as well.

First, I appreciate Pat’s desire to see canonization processes be slow, leisurely things in which there is lots of time for reflection.

On the other hand, I also appreciate the desire on the part of people in general, when we’ve clearly witnessed the life of an extraordinary figure like John Paul II or Mother Teresa, to have them declared a saint immediately.

I understand the cries, “Santo! Subito!” from St. Peter’s Square. (By the way, what is it with commentators translating this chant with more than two words? At the time I saw one commentator — who seemed positively enchanted with his translation the way he kept repeating it — render this “Make him a saint, and do it now.” Dude, points for elegance, but that sucks all the energy out of it. Chanted slogans need to be short and pithy. Just translate it directly: “Saint! Now!” See how much more powerful that is?)

Originally saints got on the calendar because of popular acclaim. The popes didn’t take over the process until a thousand years into Christian history, so there’s certainly some room for flexibility here.

Yet there is also wisdom in waiting and doing a thorough investigation. There have been any number of people dressed in sheep’s clothing right up to the end of their lives — even very publicly known people — who were later revealed to have been ravening wolves inwardly. Imagine the damage that would be done if, upon the death of the person, the wave of public sentiment for this apparently sheep-like individual resulted in an instant canonization, only to have his wolf nature revealed later.

One might say argue that papal saint canonizations are infallible and so it would still be guaranteed that the individual is in heaven. True, it is commonly thought that saint canonizations are infallible (though there is some question on this matter; the late Cardinal Dulles, for example, expressed doubts about this point). But if saint canonizations are infallible and the person got canonized then this would mean that the person finished their life in a state of grace — perhaps due to a deathbed repentance — but it would do nothing to fix the massive damage done by the Church just having declared a proven wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing to be a saint.

“St. Child-Molester!” the headlines would blare.

Can you even imagine the world of hurt this would bring?

And even if the prospective saint is innocent, the mere fact that charges exist against the person signals the need to deal with them in some way. This applies to Blessed Pius XII, whose memory has been grossly tarnished by unjust slanders regarding his actions during World War II: Was he “indifferent” to the plight of Jewish people? Why didn’t he do more? Was he even approving of Hitler’s plans?

Personally, I look forward with great anticipation to the day Pius XII is canonized, but the charges against him in the public mind need to be dealt with prior to canonization so that people can understand the heroic example he actually did provide.

And there’s part of the key: Canonizations aren’t meant just to settle the question of whether someone is in heaven. They are also meant to hold up to us an example to follow. If a person did not set a good example then they should not become a canonized saint, even if they are in heaven. Or, if their example has been widely misunderstood, then the Holy See needs to set the record straight prior to canonization so that the act of canonization will not cause avoidable scandal.

In the case of a pope being canonized, we face something of a dilemma. Because popes are such high profile figures, they are precisely the kind of people who are likely to generate a strong desire for immediate canonization. They are among the folks most likely to have people chanting, “Santo! Subito!” in St. Peter’s Square.

On the other hand, precisely because they are such high-profile figures, to canonize them prematurely entails the greatest risks. It’s not like scandalizing a local area by promoting to the altars a local person who set a bad example. It would scandalize the entire world for a pope to be canonized and then have problems emerge. If there are charges that need to be dealt with, either well-founded ones or entirely bogus ones, they need to be dealt with up front.

It thus seems to me that the middle path chosen by Pope Benedict regarding John Paul II’s cause — to waive the five-year waiting period in difference to popular acclaim but to otherwise allow the process to proceed methodically — was a reasonable way of handling the situation.

Ultimately, the matter is in God’s hands, of course. This is particularly true with regard to how quickly God wants to grant verifiable miracles in conjunction with John Paul II’s intercession.

However, those on earth need to do their part in working through the process methodically.

It’s that whole God-and-man-cooperating theme.

So those are my thoughts.

What are yours?