Is Pope John Paul II canonising too many saints?

Is Pope John Paul II canonising too many saints?

Michael Casanova

In the course or his pontificate, from 1978 until today, John Paul II has beatified 1,299 persons, 1,029 of whom were martyrs, while he has canonised 464, of whom 401 were martyrs.

In response to those who consider these figures excessive, the Holy Father points out: "In recent years the number of canonisations and beatifications has increased. These show the vitality of the local Churches, which are much more numerous today than in the first centuries and in the first millennium" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente).

In other words, given the rapid population growth of the Church and its widening international outreach - coupled with more sophisticated means of investigating causes and the speed of modern communications - it is not surprising simply on these grounds that the number of recognised saints and blesseds has increased correspondingly.

Call to holiness

The Pope also justifies this trend as a response to Vatican II's call to universal holiness: "It is sometimes said that there are too many beatifications today. However, in addition to reflecting reality, which by God's grace is what it is, it also responds to the desire expressed by the [second Vatican] Council ... Indeed, it was the Council that put particular emphasis on the universal call to holiness". (Opening Address to the Extraordinary Consistory in Preparation for Jubilee Year 2000).

A recent article in L'Osservatore Romano (16 April 2003), by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, CMF, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, examines the question of sainthood and concludes that there are so many recent canonisations and beatifications because holiness and sainthood are actual enduring historical realities.

St Irenaeus of Lyons once wrote: "The glory of God is man fully alive". True, but before he put a full stop to his sentence, Irenaeus continued: "autem [however], the life of man is the vision of God!" (Adversus Haereses, IV, 20:7). Holiness is the amazing new life found in those who contemplate the face of Christ and are transformed by Him.

There is one face contemplated, the face of Christ. But there are many people who contemplate. There is one result - holiness. But there are endless variations in the saints and the circumstances in which holiness can arise.

John Paul II recognises this: "The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has enabled me to beatify and canonise a large number of Christians, and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life" (Novo Millennio Ineunte).

The increasingly international dimension of sainthood, says Cardinal Martins, confirms the fact that "holiness knows no bounds and that in the Church it is far from dead; indeed, it continues to be vitally up to date. The world is changing, yet the saints, while changing with the changing world, always represent the same living face of Christ."

A further factor in the increasing number of proclamations of new blesseds and saints, notes the Cardinal, is their role as "an authentic and constant means of evangelisation and teaching" so as "to accompany the preaching of truth and of the Gospel values with the presentation of saints who lived those truths and values in an exemplary way."

This view is confirmed in the Catechism, which affirms (828): "By canonising some of the faithful ... the Church sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors. The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church"s history."

At the same time, Vatican II insisted that a "careful investigation - theological, historical, and pastoral - should always be made concerning the proposal of the devotion to saints" (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

In recent times, the Church has been more thorough than ever in ascertaining the truth regarding potential saints and blesseds. In this regard, Cardinal Martins notes, that it is no longer only "authorised ecclesiastics" who consult the archives of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but also lay scholars who do research there for their doctoral theses for historical, pedagogical, sociological studies, etc, because they find a wealth of historically reliable material."

New procedures

George Weigel's biography of John Paul II - Witness to Hope - focuses on the changes the Holy Father has introduced, particularly following his statement, Divinus Perfectionis Magister, which altered the process from an expensive legal joust of presumed guilt (less than a saint until proven otherwise), to an academic historical inquiry with theological consultors replacing lawyers.

"The new procedures," says Weigel, "were more attuned to identifying what was distinctive about a life, and trusted the skills of historical scholarship to ensure that what was distinctive was also authentically Christian.

"The new procedures also reflected something of the Pope's dramatic sensibility, his sense that history is a stage on which God's freedom and human freedom are both in play, in a drama with nothing less than salvation at issue" (p. 449).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recently observed: "It is not the sporadic majorities which form in the Church here and there that determine the path she and we will take. The saints are the true, crucial majority, and it is from them that we take our bearings. Let us stick to them! They express the divine in the human, the eternal in time."

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