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ROME – I am in the Eternal City for what used to be rare thing, but is now almost an expected thing, namely the canonization of a pope as a saint.
October 11th is, in fact, the liturgical feast day of Pope John XXIII, canonized in 2014 along with Pope John Paul II.
On Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize Pope Paul VI (1963-1978). When the decision was announced earlier in the spring, Pope Francis joked that “Benedict and I are in the queue.” Some years back, a satirical site “reported” that Pope Francis, in a characteristic and refreshing break with hidebound tradition, was going to canonize himself.
The popes of the early centuries are almost all canonized—and the great majority of them were martyrs. Being called to Peter’s See for a long time meant following Peter to martyrdom.
Is there a link between persecution and holiness? After Christianity became legal, and later State-supported, the worldly power of the Bishop of Rome grew. The almost routine practice of declaring popes saints also waned. By time of the Renaissance, when even the most partisan of Catholics acknowledges that the papacy had been occupied by a series of corrupt popes, holiness seemed not even to be expected.
Is there a link between holiness and unity? The Reformation was not unrelated to a papacy that itself was in need of reform. The “Catholic Reformation” was the answer to that need, and found its most formal expression in the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563). Not long after, a rather severe and austere man was elected pope, Pius V, who had a short but productive pontificate, 1566-1572. In time, he was canonized as a sort of rebuke in the flesh to the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the first pope in nearly three hundred years to be declared a saint.
But for a long while after St. Pius V, it appeared as if he might be the last pope canonized. Pope Innocent IX (1676-1689) was beatified – the final stage before canonization – but no pope was canonized until 1954, when Pope Pius X (1903-1914) was recognized as a saint.
The papal “queue” started to move in earnest in 2000, when John Paul beatified two of his predecessors, Pius IX (1846-1878) and John XXIII (1958-1963). Since then three popes have been canonized – John XXIII, John Paul II, and now Paul VI. Pope Pius XII is close to beatification, and Pope John Paul I is being investigated.
What should we think about this 21st century uptick in papal canonizations?
There is reason for gratitude, especially because for a rather long stretch now the Church has been blessed with men of evident holiness, rather than venality. That is not to be assumed, as history teaches.
And personal holiness is the standard, not the wisdom of any particular decision taken as pope. It is the pope who is canonized, not the pontificate. John Paul II made that absolutely clear when beatifying Pius IX and John XXIII, stating that it was not a historical judgment on the wisdom of the decisions that they made.
That is now being remembered in relation to John Paul II himself. Greater attention to the handling of sexual abuse cases in the clergy has shone light on the period when he was in office. While it is true that in 2001 John Paul took the initiative with key canonical legislation which changed the handling of such cases, it is also true that those changes came after a long time of the Church not dealing with the problem according to Gospel standards of justice and honesty.
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There are voices which question the canonization of popes, not in theory, but in practice. It may be a barrier to ecumenical relations, as for those who find the Catholic practice of canonization difficult, as well as the papacy itself, the canonization of a pope must seem doubly dubious. That concern seems to have lessened though in recent years.
The confusion of history and holiness now seems to be the principal objection. Is it really possible to separate the pope from the pontificate? And if more recent popes are canonized than not, does it imply something lacking in the popes – and their pontificates – who are not?
But the objections are few; there is widespread satisfaction that there are more saints rather than fewer, and ones who are better known rather than more obscure. (Paul VI is being canonized alongside five others whom you have never heard of, and one you have, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, the martyr assassinated at the altar during Holy Mass.)
And in a time when the sins and crimes of clergy are more evident than when it was all hidden away, we need holy witnesses more than ever.
Father Raymond J. de Souza will be providing television coverage for the international Catholic network, EWTN, which is streamed at www.EWTN.com
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