Some causes just have to be made

  • January 18, 2011
The beatification of Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday this year has brought joy to both Catholics and non-Catholics the world over. At the same time, questions have been raised about the speed of the process, and whether there was a rush to judgment in this case.

Anticipating such questions, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints released a summary of the process last week, outlining that all the usual procedures were followed in John Paul’s case. The only difference was that Pope Benedict XVI gave permission for the process to begin in 2005, lifting the usual five-year waiting period. John Paul himself had done the same thing for Mother Teresa.

The point of the five-year waiting period is to ensure that there is a genuine, enduring devotion among the faithful to the potential candidate. In a few rare cases, the five-year period is unnecessary as such devotion was already present at the time of death.

Nonetheless, the Vatican was eager to insist that the widespread devotion to John Paul did not influence the process — the exhaustive documentation, the widespread testimony and the scrupulous examination of a miraculous healing on both medical and theological grounds. All of which is well and good, but it would be fair to ask why the popular devotion of the faithful should not be taken into account. The tradition of canonizing saints has its early roots in the popular acclamation of the faithful, and while the more rigourous procedures of the last centuries clearly prevent abuses, it is good to see the authentic voice of the faithful expressed. The plain fact is that the entire Church — from the Holy Father down to the lay faithful — had already made up her mind about John Paul’s sanctity by the time of his death. Indeed, one might say that taking six years to follow all the procedures was most cautious given the circumstances.

Popular acclaim does not always coincide with canonization. There are plenty of canonizations of saints truly obscure, with a devotion limited to fellow members of a religious community. Then there are those who, despite widespread devotion, take a leisurely path to the altars, such as the recently beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman. So it is to be celebrated when the formal judgment of the Church coincides with the popular acclaim of the faithful, especially so soon after the entrance of the new saint to heaven.

I remember a visit to Rome in the spring of 2002 by Fr. Richard McBrien, the longtime dissenting theologian from Notre Dame. He was flogging his latest book, and came to chat with a few journalists. The latest papal outrage disturbing McBrien’s peace was the announcement that Padre Pio and Juan Diego would both be canonized that year. McBrien thought more popular saints should be chosen, and he had his own candidate, Blessed John XXIII — or at least John XXIII as Dick McBrien imagined him. I challenged him on his own grounds. The most popular pilgrimage places in the Christian world are San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio is buried, and Guadalupe, where Juan Diego received the apparition of Our Lady. To his credit, Fr. McBrien conceded that popular acclaim did not neatly coincide with his liberal agenda.

Indeed, the temptation to see the canonization of saints as part of any agenda other than holiness should be resisted. A beatification is an occasion of joy because holiness is a cause for joy. Other considerations should remain secondary.

But worldly agendas do intrude. St. Robert Bellarmine, who died in 1621, had his canonization delayed until after the Lateran Treaty of 1929 conceded the loss of the papal states. (Bellarmine had argued that they were not necessary, a difficulty when the Vatican argued the opposite position.) Pope Paul VI wisely decided not to advance the causes of the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War while General Franco was still in power. The beatification of Pope Pius IX waited for over a century until the controversies over Italian reunification had died down. And most recently, Benedict XVI himself ordered two years of further studies to be done before he declared Pope Pius XII to be “venerable” in 2009.

Fortunately, in the case of John Paul, controversies are minor as against the immensity of his impact on the Church and the world. During the Great Jubilee, John Paul said that the history of Church is the history of holiness. To that history he contributed a mighty chapter.

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