Friday, April 25, 2014

'Making saints': what's it mean?

It seems like everyone's attention is turning to Rome, and the upcoming canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. A lot of folks don't quite get how the process works, or what this means.

First, you have those who question whether they ought to be declared saints, or whether it's too quick. I think it's OK to ask those questions, although sometimes it's pretty clear what people are doing is using that to get digs in.

So, for example, there are those who say, maybe so soon after Pope John Paul II's death is too soon? That's reasonable. Interestingly, it's Pope John Paul II who, himself, made such a revolution in the process of announcing saints -- he named a huge number of saints, in comparison to his predecessors. There are those who reasonably point out that revolutions are exhilarating...until they're not.

Some of us remember Pope John Paul II's funeral, and the vast numbers of people who crowded Rome, and the cry that rose up: Santo subito!--roughly, "saint immediately!" So it may be that Pope Benedict took that to heart. I am as prone to cynicism as anyone, but I do trust Pope Benedict; particularly as I think he, himself, was one who was a little more cautious about "saint-making" than his revered predecessor.

Then there's the whole business of how various flaws or complaints about a pope fit into the business of him being announced a saint. I know people who say, I'm fine with John XXIII, with John Paul II, not so much. Well, of course, there are many today who would admit they were more at home with Benedict than they are, so far, with Francis. And that's OK; it's no different from what happens with parish priests.

But this isn't about those sorts of things. It's about sanctity, and thus about cooperation with grace.

So, for example, there are those who say of Pope John Paul II -- OK, he was holy and stuff, but he didn't handle the sex abuse problem very well.

Well, there's some justice in that, although that criticism often gets muddled because of a great misunderstanding about how the Holy See really works. I think it's fair to say that there was a slowness, and a huge missed opportunity. And it's very fair to wonder what Pope John Paul II and others in Rome knew about Father Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who turned out to have committed some terrible crimes: fathering children while a priest, sexually abusing some of those children, as well as seminarians, and cloaking all this in a carefully designed system of secrecy within his order. There is no getting around the fact that Pope John Paul II, and many others, at one time viewed Father Maciel as a very different sort of person. And if I never see another picture of the two, side by side and smiling, that'll be just fine.

Now if someone can really show that Pope John Paul II behaved in a corrupt or dishonorable way in all this, then bring that forward. Sadly, many of his critics are content to smear, rather than provide anything reputable. In other words, it's one thing to say that he was slow to realize just what a big deal this was; or to say that his strength wasn't managing details, but being an apostle to the world; or to say that he didn't want to believe such horrible stories about his friend, Father Maciel -- and that one reason he was was so high on Maciel and the Legion is because they seemed such a bright spot at a time when there weren't very many. But it's quite another to say that John Paul II was corrupt. I wish people who claim to be crusaders for justice on the subject of abuse, were really thoughtful about justice as it applies more broadly.

But all this raises a key point. To recognize that someone is a saint is not to say that person had no flaws. Nor is it to say that that person's life or career, if you will, was always marked by sound judgment. I think of Blessed Karl, the last Hapsburg emperor of Austria. Whether all his political decisions were sound I cannot say; but when the Church declared him a blessed, that was about his heroic holiness, not his political wisdom.

This is as good a place to make this point. There are those who have argued that Pope John XXIII simply erred in judgment when he called the Second Vatican Council. Now, many folks will react incredulously to that. And you don't have to believe it. But it's not a heresy to say it. Calling the council was a huge decision and its still having effects; and it will for awhile yet. Who knows but John XXIII might himself say he wouldn't do it all over again?

There's a lesson here: if things work out as we hope, heaven will be full of saints. And that increases the odds that -- if you and I make it -- some of those saints will include people we wouldn't have wanted to be friends with on earth -- and maybe we weren't!

Some of those saints are going to be people who belonged to the wrong political party (I mean that other one). They're going to include people who laughed too loud, or who made dumb decisions, or who had grating personalities (everyone loves Francis of Assisi now...what if he were your next-door neighbor?), or just rub you the wrong way. Speaking of Francis, he often wondered if he wasn't just crazy. A lot of saints had to endure being told they were crazy. And it's not irreverent to suppose that many some of them were, a little.

Remember, this whole thing is about grace! I'll bring up a point I often make: almost all of us humans are intuitively Pelagians. By that I mean, we generally assume that it's about our own efforts, either that's the way it actually works, or else that's how we think it ought to work. But saying that is a heresy. No one, not a single soul, will make it to heaven on its own merits. (We'll set aside debates about the human soul of the Son of God.) Sainthood isn't about being good enough, but being saved. Personal holiness is -- the Council of Trent taught dogmatically -- a product of divine assistance.

Wait, you say, what about our human cooperation? Guess what? The Church teaches that, too, is only possible because of...divine grace. It's not that human freedom isn't real; only that there's never a point where we can say, we didn't require divine assistance.

Which leads to this point: the Church isn't "making" anyone a saint. God does that. It isn't as though John Paul II and John XXIII are sitting in some ethereal train-station, waiting until Pope Francis gives the go-ahead, and then they'll be allowed to ride the celestial express right down to the front row of the heavenly chorus.

What Pope Francis will do on Sunday is declare what the Church has come to believe, after much prayer and discernment, is already true -- and this by God's action, not ours: that these men are saints.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Well said, Father Fox!

Something that comes to mind is when Pius XII declared Our Lady's Assumption to be Dogma. He was affirming what the Church had already believed and lived out for centuries, in the East and in the West!