The Contradictions of the Saints

Canonization can stereotype the life of the saint — as it becomes more Christ-like, the rough edges of a saint’s story can be smoothed away.

What do we think of when we hear the word saint?

A life that reflects the Christian “master narrative” — that is, the gospel of the “master,” Jesus Christ.  A saint serves, sacrifices, and remains true to God in and through all things. Saints are role models, intercessors, miracle bringers. But while saints might be more than human, they are also all too human. They are not sinless, but rather set apart.

To be named a saint in the Catholic tradition is ordinarily a complex process. First, a foundation is formed to promote the candidate’s cause, and evidence is presented to church tribunals attesting to the candidate’s “heroic virtue.” If those virtues are established, the candidate becomes “venerable.” Then comes the investigation of miracles attributed to the venerable’s intercession. With one miracle, the candidate becomes “blessed,” meaning he or she may be honored locally. Upon the second miracle, the blessed is canonized and recognized as a “saint” whose life is worthy of imitation. The saint’s feast day is then entered into the calendar of the Catholic Church. The pope alone finally approves the titles “venerable,” “blessed,” and “saint.”

As complex as the process is, canonization can stereotype the life of the saint — as it becomes more Christ-like, the rough edges of a saint’s story can be smoothed away. But when I think of the saints, what comes to mind are the inherent tensions and contradictions — or at least what appear to be so from our very human ways of looking at things.

And so it is with the Catholic Church’s newest saints, John XXIII and John Paul II, who will be canonized on April 27.

John XXIII: Humility and Finery

John XXIII is often portrayed as a revolutionary, the patron saint of liberals. But if you read Angelo Roncalli’s journals, especially the entries before he was elected pope, you would first be struck by how conventional they are. Not conventional in the sense that the future pope talks about what he had for breakfast or what it’s like to drive a car. No, conventional in a traditional Catholic sense, with flowery language of affection and reverence directed toward his superiors, as well as frequent fearful remarks about the fires of hell and reminders about avoiding occasions of sin, like playing cards games or listening to love songs.

Perhaps even more stunning was the pope that the young Angelo Roncalli admired: Pius X. Pius X was the last pope to be made a saint — he was a populist of sorts, known for encouraging frequent (even daily) partaking of the sacrament of communion. It was also during his pontificate that the Catholic Church undertook a purge of “modernists,” those theologians who argued that the Church should adapt to the “modern” spirit of the times.

Ironically, when John XXIII became pope, he set in motion a dynamic that brought back the intellectual forces that St. Pius X had tried so hard to suppress. But very little in John XXIII’s journals would hint at something so momentous as the calling of a Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the worldwide church that led to changes in Catholic life that are still debated today. In reflecting on why he called Vatican II, John XXIII remarked, “one must accept the good inspirations that come from the Lord, simply and confidently.”

While John XXIII had a well-deserved reputation for humility and simplicity, he also liked the finery of the papal office. He wore the papal tiara, the triple crown that symbolizes the universal authority of the papacy. During formal occasions, John XXIII towered over the congregation as he was carried on the sedia gestatoria, the portable papal throne, followed by retainers holding flabella, fans of white ostrich plumes made especially for the pope.

For John XXIII, the finery of the papal office, was not about him — it was about “the splendor of souls,” as he once wrote. And it was a very traditional Catholic spirituality that empowered him to chart a new direction for the Catholic Church.

John Paul II: Celibacy and Sexuality

For his part, John Paul II left aside many of the regal accouterments of the papacy. He did not wear the tiara, and toward the end of his life he was wheeled into St. Peter’s Basilica on a simple platform– he never made use of the sedia gestatoria and his attendants never carried flabella. Even the famous pope mobile was a concession he made reluctantly –its bulletproof glass was necessary after the assassination attempt that almost claimed his life.

Nonetheless, John Paul II reestablished the monarchical papacy. He was a larger-than-life figure, a celebrity in the age of global media and the Internet. He did not mind lecturing his bishops, and his writings were both sensitive and stern. Under his pontificate, theologians were silenced. He emphasized strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, especially with regard to sexuality.

It is in these teachings on sexuality that one sees other tensions. In his monumental writings on the theology of the body, John Paul II presented a poetic, but also intellectually rigorous, defense of traditional Catholic teachings on sexuality. In one of the more thought-provoking parts of this theology, John Paul II reflected on the problem of erotic “spontaneity.” This rather academic formulation speaks to one of the basic aspects of human sexual expression: being swept away by desire. John Paul II’s point is that self-discipline, in the end, allows for a more authentic spontaneity that joins two bodies together as one. But his reflections do recognize a tension, if not a contradiction, in so emphasizing will and self mastery in an act that is often supposed to bring us beyond ourselves. A similar tension is experienced by those many Catholics who agonize about being faithful to what the Catholic Church teaches about the means and ends of human sexual expression.

John Paul II, the Catholic priest, could write not only sensitively, but knowingly, about sex and sexuality, while also defending celibacy as spousal and erotic in the deepest sense of joining with the beauty and love of God.

The lives of the saints are filled with tensions and contradictions. There is St. Peter, the chief apostle of Christ and, for Catholics, the first pope. He was crucified upside down: an act of humility in the minds of some, but arguably a statement of even greater sacrifice — and power — than the right-side-up crucifixion of Jesus himself. The Blessed Mother Teresa, lauded for her faith, experienced lifelong doubts about Christ’s presence in her life. She too will surely be canonized — not for her doubts, but because of them. Look at a saint, and you see the complexities of what it means to be human.

In canonizing John XXIII and John Paul II at the same time, Pope Francis is making a statement: you can’t have one without the other. It’s a theological statement as well as a shrewd political move. But the issue is that John Paul II has the two miracles necessary for canonization, while John XXIII has only one. In elevating John XXIII to sainthood, the simple, humble Pope Francis is using the power of the papacy in a bold way to emphasize the enduring legacy of Vatican II and his own personal connection to John XXIII as priest and pope.


Image courtesy of Aleteia Image Department.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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