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Of the making of saints there is no end cries the modern Ecclesiastes, and with some justification. A thousand years ago—or even twenty-five years ago—the roster of canonized saints was severely circumscribed. From 1000 AD to 1978 AD, fewer than 450 men and women had been “raised to the altars” by the Catholic Church. The situation changed dramatically under the long pontificate of John Paul II. The vigorous pope—who was ordained on the Feast of All Saints—canonized, during his twenty-six-year reign, over 480 saints and beatified 1300 more, with a thousand additional candidates still wending their way through the labyrinthine juridical process. Some wag has christened this explosion of saints John Paul’s “canonization cannon.” Pope Benedict XVI has not yet canonized anyone, but there are good reasons for thinking that he intends to keep up the pace: not only his pronounced intention of sustaining the principles of John Paul’s papacy, but his own declaration, when asked about his predecessor’s penchant for saint-making, that “there cannot be too many saints.”

This is, of course, sound Catholic teaching. We are all called to be saints, and the more the merrier. In his Paradiso, Dante depicts vast throngs of the elect encircling the Celestial Throne, but suggests (in the early fourteenth century) that only a few heavenly seats remain unfilled; others, more generous, imagine billions of saints or saints-in-the-making, in purgatory or heaven, with the number increasing without pause until the last trumpet sounds.

Whatever the true number of saints, now and to come, we can be sure that God wants to save as many of us as possible (“for He wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church nicely puts it, quoting the Vatican II document, Dei Verbum). But why does the Church find it necessary or desirable to bring some of these saints so dramatically into public view? Why bother to canonize? The best contemporary discussion of the subject occurs in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 1954 book Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Mission, in which the great Catholic theologian explains his views with characteristic rigor and, some might add, uncharacteristic simplicity. Balthasar’s presentation is of particular interest because of his influence upon the writings of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Balthasar suggests that the entire structure of the Church, from the Petrine ministry to the humblest parish pastorate, exists for one purpose: the making of saints. “The ultimate reason for her whole institutional and objective side,” he writes, is “the obligatory vocation to subjective and personal sanctity.” Even Christ’s personal sanctity serves the same end: “Christ had no other motive in ‘sanctifying’ himself than ‘that they also might be sanctified through the truth’ (John 17:19).”

We attain to this “subjective and personal” sanctity by fulfilling our role in the building of the kingdom, the mission that God has assigned to us from eternity. Since everyone has his or her own mission, it follows that no two saints are alike. This truth is affirmed by scripture (“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit . . . who apportions to each one individually as he wills” [1 Corinthians 12:4-11]) and by such theologians and holy men as John Henry Newman (“God has committed some work to me which has not been committed to another. I have my mission—I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told of it in next,” [Meditations and Devotions, 1893]).

Nonetheless, a rough classification of saints remains possible. Balthasar suggests two ways. In the first, saints are either “customary” or “representative” (this latter category is also called “special”). “Customary” saints achieve holiness through the ordinary, well-worn ways of the Church, modeling their sanctity on that of their forbears. “Representative” saints, by contrast, serve as models for others—sometimes against their own will, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus.

Balthasar’s second schema, expanding on the first, emphasizes the importance of mission. All saints possess a mission, but some missions flow from the body of the Church to the head, others from the head to the body. The first variety usually arises among members of religious communities or orders and characterizes the great majority of saints, those largely unfamiliar names that populate the ecclesiastical calendar. The second kind of mission, “incomparably more distinctive,” strikes “like lightning from heaven.” The saints set aglow (or burnt to a crisp) by these missions become cornerstones of the Church, “prime numbers” that offer “a new type of conformity to Christ.” Thérèse of Lisieux is the most striking modern example. Such saints may succeed, falter, or fail in carrying out their mission. They may embrace it or flee from its terrible burdens. Just once in all of history, in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, has a mission achieved such perfection that mission and person “become indistinguishable.”

At one time, every young Catholic dreamed of becoming a saint, whether customary or representative, from the body or from the head. Teresa of Avila, in her sixteenth-century autobiography, recalls how she and her older brother Rodrigo played at being martyrs, while Thérèse of Lisieux, nearly three centuries later, wrote in her notebooks that “I wish to fulfill your will perfectly . . . . I desire to be a saint.” When I was a child, busily memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, my parents and teachers brought steadily before my attention, through books, holy pictures, nightly prayers, movies (to this day, my mental image of Bernadette of Lourdes is the dark-eyed, pale-skinned beauty of Jennifer Jones), and the statues that lined the walls and populated the side chapels of our parish church, the presence—one is tempted to say omnipresence—of the saints. Even in the austere years following Vatican II, the Church encouraged its flock to meditate upon, venerate, beseech, and, if one were bold enough, emulate the saints, both “customary” and “representative,” “ordinary” and “prime.” Canonization, practiced by public acclaim (the vox populi ) in the early Christian era and regularized by Pope Gregory IX in 1234 (a year whose ascending numbers suggested, when I first encountered them in the religious ardors of my high school years, the infinite progression of the Church Triumphant), has always been understood as a means to this end.

In traditional Christian thought, canonization serves a number of purposes: It glorifies God, whose grace sanctifies the saints, and it honors the saints, who reflect God’s glory; it provides models of holiness for guidance and imitation as each of us struggles to identify and fulfill his own mission and thus find his own path to sanctity; and it tells us something of the citizenry of heaven, instructing us as to whom we may venerate and ask to intercede with God. The procedure serves a more practical aim as well: Its rigorous vetting (which makes media scrutiny of politicians seems child’s play by comparison) filters out unworthy candidates. The process takes years, often centuries; investigations unfold on both diocesan and Vatican levels; hundreds of witnesses typically testify and mountains of documentation result; as a final hurdle, two miracles are required (except in the case of martyrs): one for beatification, another for canonization. The benefits of such screening abound. One need only look at Catholic churches that include in their stained glass windows “saints” that have not yet been and are scarcely likely to be canonized; in one parish church in Ohio the light that strikes the altar passes through an image of the notoriously promiscuous “Jungle Doctor” Thomas Dooley.

All these considerations played a part, one can safely assume, in John Paul II’s many canonizations. His was an exuberant papacy, and exuberance in saint-making seems, in retrospect, to have been an intrinsic part of the package. The steady stream of canonizations from 1978 to 2004 did, I believe, increase enthusiasm for the saints, by bringing an array of new figures to our attention for veneration and intercessory prayer, some of whom captured the imagination and even love of Christians worldwide (Mother Teresa, who has been beatified but not yet canonized, is a choice example).

“Ordinary” canonizations necessarily outnumber “prime,” but these nearly invisible ordinary saints can wield a vital, salutary role, especially on the local level. For example, John Paul beatified a priest, a nun, and a lawyer in minor orders, all from the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. The event was scarcely noticed, no more than a blip on the calendar of Church activities, and yet these were the first Maltese ever to be raised—and thus of inestimable importance to the Maltese Catholics, who now have native sons and daughters to receive their prayers. In addition, as curia officials never tired of emphasizing, John Paul wished to bring attention to the holiness of certain groups largely ignored by the Church in the past, especially laymen and laywomen, whether married or single (nearly 250 of his canonizations were laypeople, including Puerto Rico’s first saint, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago). Moreover, he canonized hundreds of martyrs, underscoring the terrible truth that the twentieth century was the bloodiest in Church history.

Few Catholics, or indeed those of any faith, fault such rationales for canonization (apart from the veneration of saints, which raises concerns among many Protestants), or disagree with John Paul’s wish to bring martyrs, holy laity, and “prime number” saints to the world’s attention. One might anticipate, therefore, that the repeated firing of John Paul’s “canonization cannon” would have been music to most, if not all, Catholic ears.

But this was not the case. Objections have been legion. Not all can be taken seriously. The New York Times on October 15, 2004, ran an editorial protesting the beatification of Charles I of Austria, declaring him “a weak, dissembling loser” and ascribing the proposed action to “nostalgic monarchists” who presumably had the ear of the pope. It is difficult to fathom the Times’ interest in this minor event, unless nostalgic anti-monarchists reside on its editorial board. American Atheists, Inc., chimed in with an Internet article castigating the pope’s “sainthood factory” and dubbing him “the Mark McGwire of the Vatican’s saint-making machine.” In 2002, the Rev. Richard M. McBrien complained in USA Today about the speed, as he perceived it, of a few recent canonizations, declaring “What’s the rush? If someone is really in heaven, we’ll find out in time.” This is true, of course, but such a wait-and-see attitude, if followed to its logical extreme, would lead to the end of all canonizations.

Other challenges cannot be dismissed so readily. Some of them focus on John Paul’s penchant for naming saints; often these arguments boil down to “too much of a good thing.” But such objections have been much less prevalent than one might suppose. The reason for this is simple enough: To bolster arguments against too many canonizations, opponents almost always wind up discussing specific cases that, in their opinion, should not have received Vatican approval. This is where the brunt of the anti-canonization arguments lie, and they not only fail to convince but share certain disturbing characteristics.

The five most controversial canonizations of John Paul’s pontificate were:

Edith Stein, also known by her religious name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942), canonized October 11, 1998. Born a Jew, she was a philosopher and pupil of Edmund Husserl before converting to Catholicism at the age of thirty and becoming a Carmelite nun. Stein was arrested by the Nazis in Holland, as part of a nationwide sweep after the Dutch bishops publicly condemned anti-Semitism, and was executed at Auschwitz.

The Chinese martyrs, canonized October 1, 2000. A group of 120 who died for the faith, consisting of 87 Chinese (83 of them laypeople) and 33 non-Chinese missionaries. The martyrdoms ranged from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, the bulk occurring during the anti-Western Boxer rebellion

Padre Pio (1887-1968), born Franceso Forgione, canonized June 16, 2002. A wildly popular Italian Capuchin priest and a stigmatic who reportedly demonstrated many other paranormal powers including bilocation, clairvoyance, and miraculous cures.

Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-1975), canonized October 6, 2002. A Spanish priest who in 1928 founded Opus Dei, a personal prelature composed of laypeople and priests devoted to leading exemplary lives in their ordinary daily routines.

Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (1474-1548), canonized July 31, 2002. A Mexican Indian who experienced a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed as an Aztec princess. This apparition is now celebrated as Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. Associated with the event is a miraculous tilma or cloak, bearing a life-sized image of Mary.

Opposition to these canonizations was fierce. The case of the Chinese martyrs raised howls of outrage from the government in Beijing, which unleashed a barrage worthy of Mao’s most apoplectic discharges and perhaps unprecedented in any previous canonization. The Vatican’s action, Beijing thundered, “distorts and tramples on history, embellishes imperialism, is a calumny against the Chinese people, lovers of peace, wounds the Chinese’s feelings, and insults their dignity.” It might be worth mentioning that one of the martyrs, fourteen-year-old Anna Wang, was decapitated after singing “the door of heaven is open”; a nine-year-old boy and an infant were executed at the same time. Objections to Escrivá and Padre Pio, by contrast, for the most part focused on complaints about their behavior: Escrivá was accused of being ill-tempered, grasping, and abrupt with subordinates; Padre Pio of womanizing, faking his stigmata, and generally being a vulgar reactionary. Edith Stein’s main impediment seems to have been that she was born a Jew: If the Nazis killed her for being Jewish rather than for being Catholic, then she could not have been a martyr for the faith. Juan Diego, like the Chinese martyrs, was suspected of being an imperialist dupe, if not a wholly imaginary creation of duplicitous Catholic colonialists.

These arguments prove to have little merit. There seem to be some shadowy areas in the deportment of both Escrivá and Padre Pio, but—how shall I put it?—not all saints are perfect saints. Jerome possessed an acid tongue, a hot temper, and a famed lack of charity; Mother Teresa could be overbearing; Ignatius was headstrong. No real evidence exists, however, that any of these men and women wallowed in mortal sin. Flaws of temperament are not incompatible with Christian perfection, which consists, according to Thomas Aquinas, “in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of neighbor.” Heroic virtue, rather than a serene disposition, is what we ask of saints.

Hagiophiles (a neologism, but a useful one) will forever enjoy rehashing the details of these debates. In the opposition voices one discerns a glaring irony. Anyone familiar with the ideological currents within the Catholic Church will realize the five controversial canonizations involve saints who represent the mainstream of contemporary Catholicism—that body of thought most clearly expressed in Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution of the Church. John Paul II enthusiastically endorsed all five canonizations, and the elected saints show the mix of innovation and traditionalism that characterized his pontificate. Similarly, it is apparent that most of the protests arose in the so-called “liberal” or “left” sectors of the Catholic Church (one must bear in mind that these labels, applied to Catholic thought, can diverge sharply from their secular counterparts). Behind—or to be charitable, alongside—worries about Escrivá’s temper or Juan Diego’s reality lay political concerns, as proponents of a decentralized, progressive Church sought to block the elevation of candidates perceived to be representatives of a traditional, outmoded Catholicism.

And yet here, as so often in the history of the saints, the truth confounds all expectations. The liberal opposition seems caught in entrenched views of ethnic, religious, and cultural identity. Consider the case of Edith Stein. Is it true that a Jew cannot be a Catholic, that conversion is a violation of Jewish identity? This is a delicate and contentious subject, but the fact remains that many Jews have converted to Christianity and yet consider themselves still Jewish; they see Christianity as a culmination, rather than a violation, of their Jewishness.

The attack on Juan Diego as an imperialist dupe carries a similar message: that a real Indian cannot become a Catholic, that to do so would be to violate his Indian identity (the same argument, one notes, has been applied to the conversion of the great Sioux Indian and Catholic visionary, Nicholas Black Elk). Beijing’s complaints against the Chinese martyrs stem in part from a different sort of inflexibility, which we can justly term cultural xenophobia. And one senses in the objections to Padre Pio yet another form of cultural bigotry, manifested in a discomfort with peasant manners.

At the same time, the liberal opposition is, ironically, undercutting efforts to enhance the role of laity in the Church. Juan Diego was perhaps the most important layman in Mexican ecclesiastical history; Escrivá, as much as anyone in the twentieth century, worked to establish a model of lay Catholic holiness. The Church desperately needs an effective, sophisticated program of lay spirituality (something beyond the pablum offered in many or most RCIA programs); Opus Dei may not be the best solution, but it is an important first step.

Opposition to the canonizations arose largely from the elite rather than the masses. Indeed, it often came from non-Catholic sources. Who can doubt that the voice of the faithful spoke with irrefutable vigor and clarity in the canonizations of Padre Pio and Juan Diego? Up to ten million people lined the streets of Mexico City following Juan Diego’s canonization, and half a million attended Padre Pio’s canonization in St. Peter’s Square. All who favor letting the Catholic faithful speak must be gladdened by these canonizations.

One notable aspect of the opposition was an apparent fear of Balthasarian “prime numbers”: saints that offer new models of sanctity or at least new avenues in the history of spirituality. Escrivá pioneered a new understanding of lay holiness; Stein offered an example of courage and hope for the not-inconsiderable number of Catholic Jews; Juan Diego initiated the great compound of holiness, devotion, public spectacle, and private sacrifice that characterizes so much of Latin American Catholicism.

John Paul’s canonizations subvert suppositions about his supposedly “conservative” pontificate. These saints were radical manifestations of holiness in the heart of the Church. Perhaps one more observation needs to be made, for those Catholics who would continue, in the face of so many blessings, to oppose these canonizations: In the eyes of the Church, all canonizations are infallible. They fall under the rubric of dogmatic facts that have been definitively proposed and require the assent of all believers. Does this mean that opposition to proposed canonizations should be squelched? Far from it. To some extent, resistance plays the role once occupied by the Devil’s Advocate (a juridical figure whose sole job was to dredge up anything that might block a canonization). Protest, at the appropriate time, remains an invaluable service to the Church.

What of the future? No reason has emerged so far to think that the outpouring of canonizations will dwindle during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. One of his first acts as pontiff was to advance the beatification of John Paul II, a prime number par excellence. One suspects that in time John Paul himself will be declared not only a saint but a doctor of the Church, the third pope (after Gregory the Great and Leo the Great) so honored.

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II writes—specifically of twentieth-century martyrs, but alluding in a more general way to all saints—that “they have become the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” This sense of the new has arisen already in the Church itself, through the fresh wind of John Paul’s pontificate that initiated or encouraged original forms of ecclesial activity—from World Youth Days to lay movements like Focolare and Communion and Liberation—and that gave us his canonization cannon.

These canonizations marked a definitive reversal of the post-Vatican II “stripping of the altars”: the invasion of secular ideology into Catholic life, manifested in a variety of ways, from the homiletic downplaying of sin to the banishing of saints’ statues from parish churches. To canonize is to renew the bond between heaven and earth; every canonization, in a sense, re-consecrates the world.

But how to bring to the world this spirit of newness, revitalization, and hope? Political action matters a great deal, but work must also take place, as John Paul consistently emphasized, on the personal level, by encouraging holiness among the faithful. Only by attacking the problem on the most fundamental levels—those of the person and the family—will a culture hypnotized by self-love give way to one built upon love for God and neighbor. Here the saints point the way; indeed, only the saints can point the way.

We should never underestimate the power of holiness. I’ve spent much of the past two decades working shoulder-to-shoulder with wavering Christians; with ex-Christians who have turned to yoga, Buddhism, the New Age, or other forms of spirituality; and with hard-nosed nonbelievers. Most of these people cold-shoulder ecclesiastical structures, but they all embrace the saints. They love the saints. The saints appeal to everyone, for they show us life as it could and should be. It may be that the thirst for holiness is embedded in every human being, as an extension of the universal longing for God. Why not slake this thirst? We can do no better, if we wish to advance John Paul’s, and now Benedict’s, vision of a “new civilization,” than to give the world our saints, with joy, and in abundance.

Philip Zaleski's latest book, co-authored with his wife Carol, is Prayer: A History.

Image by User:jobas via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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