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What Does It Take to Make a Modern Saint?

Pope John Paul II blesses a young man. There is speculation that he and Pope John XXIII may become saints before the year is out. Photo by James L. Stanfield/National Geographic/Getty Images.

This week word came from Vatican City, the administrative capital of the Roman Catholic Church, that two popes would join the ranks of thousands of people throughout history who have been proclaimed saints. While the process of canonization for John XXIII will have spanned a half century (he died in 1963), the journey for John Paul II will be remarkably brief, just 8 years after his death.

The announcement of a rare double papal canonization will be covered around the secular and Catholic world. On the day of the ceremony, the world’s media, however briefly, will turn its attention to St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican where immense crowds will pour in to celebrate two of the most beloved popes of the past century.

Which only makes the questions more timely: What is a saint, anyway? Who becomes one, and how?

Whether you are a Christian or not, saints and sainthood are part of a common cultural inheritance everywhere large numbers of Christians have lived. Among the oldest and largest cities in America are San Antonio, San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, all places that grew from Spanish missions named for Saints Anthony, Joseph, James, and Francis. Even Los Angeles is a shortened form of a devotional name for St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Boston, a name shortened by centuries of use from its original St. Botolph’s Town. Today, you likely passed a place of worship, hospital, or school named for a saint.

Other religions have long had similar, if not exactly the same concepts. Judaism has long honored “tzaddiks,” Hinduism its “gurus,” Buddhism the “bodhisattvas” and Sikhism the “sants.” Among Christians, many Protestant denominations revere the saints of biblical times but do not include those canonized in later centuries in their own prayers and liturgical calendars. Roman Catholics have an old and complex process for being named a saint. Some 10 thousand men and women have been designated this way, as people who have lived lives of “heroic virtue,” worthy of being emulated and venerated by today’s Catholic faithful.

There is the equivalent of a government department, or ministry, given the job of handling sainthood investigations, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. After the death of a Catholic, admirers may bring a petition to the Congregation to begin the process. Once their petition or “cause” is accepted, the person is given the title of “Venerable,” and the investigations into their life and faith continue.

The next step is beatification. The investigation into the candidate has to locate and verify one miracle, usually in the form of a medical cure for which there is no medical explanation, associated with prayer and petition to the candidate. For example, in the case of John Paul II, a woman identified in the Spanish press as Floribeth Mora experienced a complete recovery from a cerebral aneurysm after her family prayed to the late pope for help. (When a person has been murdered for the faith, martyred, he or she does not have to meet the requirement of miracles.) A second miracle is required to move to canonization, to sainthood.

As big a hurdle as two proven miracles can be (one for beatification, one for sainthood), this week showed they can be waived. Pope Francis used his own authority to remove the required second miracle from John XXIII, the former Angelo Roncalli.

There is speculation that John XXIII and John Paul II may become saints before the year is out. For all his global popularity, and the pilgrimages that made him the most visible pope in history, the former Karol Wojtyla’s sainthood may yet court controversy. He has been heavily criticized for his failure to recognize the steadily growing threat of clergy sexual abuse during his pontificate. John Paul II agreed with other senior Vatican officials that the scandal was largely an American problem, an outgrowth of a permissive sexual environment and widespread homosexuality among this country’s priests. The pope placed Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, later his successor, in charge of the worldwide church’s response to clerical sexual abuse. The German theologian also failed to understand the extent of the sufferings of the laity and the threat the growing scandal posed to Catholicism worldwide.

The recently installed Pope Francis is dealing with the continuing fallout of clerical sexual misconduct and the steady, corrosive effect of disclosures about the Vatican’s finances. The early years of John Paul II’s pontificate would have been more deeply marked by continuing Vatican financial scandal, if not for the appearance of a scruffy, young Turk in St. Peter’s Square in the spring of 1981. When Mehmet Ali Agca raised his pistol and nearly ended the pope’s life, attention swung to the prelate’s painful recovery and to his brave persistence on the job. The corruption, mismanagement, and shady dealings of Italian bankers and the Vatican’s accountants would never get the attention they needed decades earlier.

The birthplaces and working lives of Catholic saints provide a two millennia geography lesson in the spread of Christianity. Over time, it’s moved from the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire first through the rest of Europe and the Middle East. Spread by missionaries, Christianity traveled to Asia and Latin America during the Age of Exploration and huge Catholic colonial empires, and eventually to Africa. John Paul II himself canonized more saints than had been proclaimed by the Catholic Church in the entirety of the previous three centuries. They hailed from East Asia, Africa, and Latin America and illustrated the crises that faced Catholicism and all humanity in the 20th century.

St. Frances Cabrini, an Italian immigrant, became the first American saint in 1946. St. Elizabeth Seton, an adult convert from the Episcopal Church, became the first American-born Catholic saint in 1975.

Some modern proclamations of sainthood have brought controversial attention to the process. Pope John Paul II declared the Carmelite nun Teresa Benedict of the Cross a saint in 1988. She was born a Jew–Edith Stein–in Eastern Europe, and converted to Catholicism as an adult and became a nun. But her life as a Catholic scholar and in the convent could not save her from a Nazi concentration camp where she died in 1942. Jewish critics were not comforted by John Paul’s praise for a “daughter of Israel” achieving a rare distinction of sainthood. However well-meaning the beatification of the former Edith Stein might have been, many Jews saw it as obscuring the fact that she did not die a Catholic martyr, but rather because she was a Jew.

The Second World War has also complicated the saintly cause of Pope Pius XII, whose papacy spanned the plunge into continental war, and the first decade of the Cold War. His admirers praise his efforts to save the Jews of Italy and his stand against totalitarianism. His detractors say he never did enough during the war to speak out against the dictators of Europe and left the Jews of Europe to their fate. The process for his canonization began in 1965. He was declared “Venerable” in 2009 by Benedict XVI.

Jose Maria de Escriva Balaguer was a Catholic priest and the founder of the religious organization Opus Dei, “Work of God.” The mostly lay organization was particularly favored by Pope John Paul II but also was controversial in the Catholic world for its doctrinal conservatism, its friendly relationships with right-wing and authoritarian governments in Catholic countries, and its male supremacy. The organization has called on lay people to live holy lives, and to find ennobling value in daily work. When John Paul canonized Monsignor Escriva in 2002, he called him “the saint of ordinary life.”

The jubilation and eye-catching pomp of canonization will get the attention when the day arrives for two beloved popes to be known forever-after as saints. The lives they led and their years at the helm of the world’s largest religious group will get plenty of close examination until then.

Ray Suarez was a member of the Vatican press corps in 1981-82 for various American and British news services.

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