How to become a saint

When he canonizes John XXIII and John Paul II, Pope Francis affirms with the highest authority that these two servants are enjoying life with God in heaven.

Last week, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had approved the cause for canonization of two of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. In doing so, the pope revealed again his populist touch: both popes are well known and widely popular. This historical moment invites Catholics and non-Catholics alike to reflect not simply on the sanctity of these two men but on each person’s own path to holiness.

As the church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the memory of John XXIII, the pope who convened the council, has been revived for another generation. Known for a down-to-earth style similar to that of Pope Francis, John XXIII and the Council bishops guided the Catholic Church as it re-imagined its role in the modern world, engaging with greater humility peoples of all faiths and cultures and calling each person to discern their path to holiness. In the midst of the Council, John XXIII issued his own encyclical, Pacem in Terris. In the wake of world wars and in the midst of an escalating arms race, the pope called for universal peace based on God-given human dignity and justice.

While John XXIII served for less than five years, John Paul II was pope for about 27 years and is thus well known by most people living today. He was a pope for the times, taking on communist governments in Eastern Europe, including his homeland of Poland. Traveling the world, the charismatic pope rallied throngs of people, especially the young, to embrace more deeply their faith in Christ in an increasingly secular world. His defense of life from conception to natural death became a hallmark of his papacy.

Upon his death in 2005, John Paul was acclaimed “saint” by the masses who gathered in St. Peter’s Square to mourn him: “santo subito” (“saint, now”), they exclaimed. Such cries were reminiscent of how saints were elevated in the early church. Men and women known in their lifetimes for holiness and heroic virtue were declared saints by people who knew them. In the first centuries, these were usually martyrs killed for their faith.

With the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and thus fewer martyrdoms, another category of saints emerged: confessors, those who “confessed” or proclaimed their faith not by their heroic death but by their words and their example of Christ-like living.  The local bishop would give his stamp of approval for such holy men and women. With the increase of papal authority in the middle ages, the process for canonization became more centralized in Rome and a more formal procedure followed, including in most cases the attribution of miracles credited to the saint’s intercession. Only with papal approval is a person named in the official canon (or list) of saints in the Church; only then is their name invoked in the liturgy or prayers of the Church.

Interestingly, both John XXIII and John Paul II were exceptions to the rule (showing that church law has an inherent flexibility to meet the moment’s need). Pope Benedict dispensed with the customary 5-year waiting period to begin the process of canonization for John Paul almost immediately upon his death. Pope Francis dispensed with the need for a second miracle in the case of John XXIII because, according to the papal spokesman, “no one doubts” the pope’s holiness.

When a pope canonizes a saint, he does not “make” him or her a saint. Instead, he recognizes for the universal church and the world what is already manifest: the profound holiness of the person. Put another way, when he canonizes John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis will affirm with the highest authority that these two servants are enjoying life with God in heaven.  (As an instructive, perhaps consoling aside: while teaching that there is a state of total, eternal absence from God, the church has never taught that there is a particular person “in hell.” On the other hand, the church has declared with certainty that there are lots and lots of people, namely the saints, in heaven. The church leans on the side of eternal salvation).

In the Catholic tradition, saints are not only models for living, but because they enjoy the divine presence, they intercede for us in heaven, as when one prays for a miracle or a more ordinary need through them. In the Catholic imagination, our community with one another extends beyond earth to all those who have died. We pray for the dead on their way to God as we prayed for them on earth. We ask for their prayers or intercession as when we asked for their help while they were living. Put another way, we ask them to whisper our name in God’s ear from time to time. I don’t know how this kind of praying works, but in the economy of grace, the communion of saints – this widely diverse community of men and women conversing across the ages – connects us in a lively interchange where we all seek the other’s good, which in the end is what life with God (that is, heaven) is all about.

This is a comforting thought, but we have to be careful. Focusing on the official saints too much can distract us from the sanctity that surrounds us, including our own. We can put acclaimed and popular saints on so high a pedestal that their way of life becomes unreachable to us. Sainthood is for someone else, we can say, an excuse for us not to join in the work of building God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and love. Though we rightfully honor men like John XXIII or John Paul II, and women like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day, we cannot turn such deference into abdication of our own call to holiness. There are many saints in the making now, all around us, whether or not they will be officially canonized by a pope in the future.

Thomas Merton, mystic, monk, author, and anti-war activist, wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation, “It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being your self and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace. For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” Last week’s events remind us that we can pray to the saints to help us discover our own saintliness and summon the holiness of others.

Image courtesy of James G. Howes.

Kevin O'Brien
Written by

  • Diane McLaughlin

    Beautiful piece Kevin. You have come a long way from our kitchen in Medford, MA I never doubted you would. Never weary of doing good. xo

  • Diane McLaughlin

    Beautiful piece Kevin. You have come a long way from our kitchen in Medford, MA I never doubted you would. Never weary of doing good. xo