Saturday, July 06, 2013

A Rush to Sainthood?

Don't get me wrong; I think that both John Paul II and John XXIII bore the great burden of the papacy honorably and skillfully. But the move to canonize both of them now may someday come to be seen as shortsighted and unwise.

It's good for Catholics to remember that when the Church recognizes a person in its Canon of Saints, it's doing nothing on its own. Canonization isn't an award that the Church confers for what appears to have been exemplary service, like the Congressional Medal of Honor is for military heroism. It's just a recognition of something that has already happened.

The Church has always understood that it has no power to "make" a saint. Only God, out of His great mercy, can admit a soul to full communion with Himself — that is, to true sainthood. And when He does, he doesn't post about it on Facebook or put it up in lights somewhere.

Instead, the faithful discover, over time, that when they ask in prayer that a person of extraordinary holiness who has died would intercede with God for them, sometimes the result for which they ask comes to pass. And it comes to pass in a way that can't be satisfactorily explained by naturalistic causes. In other words, by a miracle. After a sufficient number of such miracles and much skeptical investigation, the Church may conclude very cautiously that that person's soul must have come into such a state of the purest communion with God that he or she must have actually interceded with Him; that is, has become what we call a saint.

But whether the Church ever takes that step for any particular person, the actual spiritual state of that soul doesn't change.

I worry, then, that Pope Francis is taking an unwise risk by announcing the imminent canonization of these two very recent popes, and especially by waiving the requirement for a second miracle in the case of Pope John XXIII. Unless he explains that latter decision very carefully and effectively, he may end up giving the impression that sainthood is, indeed, like a military decoration — a mere acknowledgement of extraordinarily good works, which can never "earn" Heaven for anyone.