|St. Peters Basilica in Rome|
Roman Catholics are not the only Christians who have saints. Protestants have them too. Even non-religious people have some regard for this idea of sainthood. I think it is intrinsic to our humanity to take note of other human beings who have lived well and have achieved great things and desire to be fed in some way by reflecting upon their memory. In modern parlance we call this mentoring. In fact, the other day I was reading a leadership blog where the author suggested continually reading the biographies a great people as a means of securing mentoring from some of the most excellent people of all time. Sainthood in a sense recognizes those individuals in Christ’s body who have lived out their faith in such a way as to be an extraordinary example. In a way it’s holy mentoring.
Having said that, Roman Catholic sainthood is much more than being an example of heroic faith and virtue. It is inclusive of this idea, but there are many entailments to sainthood that touch on Christian theology and praxis for Catholics that are not generally known to non-Catholics. Even though I am not nor have ever been a Roman Catholic, I have studied and taught Church history for many years and this has required me to attain a familiarity with the history and theology of the Roman Catholic Church which was until the Reformation, the only church of Western Civilization. In this essay I want to explain a bit of the history and theology of this practice and having done that, I will then turn my attention to the significance of the lives and canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
|Christians were persecuted by Roman society|
The notion of sainthood comes from the ancient Christian church during the period of Roman persecution (approx.67 -312 AD). Those persons who gave witness to their faith in Christ while enduring horrific torture or execution were revered by Christians as the perfect example of faith and love towards Christ. This was mostly a local affair and its practical outworking was usually a gathering of a local congregation at their tomb on what they called the person’s “birthday” which was day they were martyred and woke up in heaven.
After persecution ended under the emperor Constantine this practice continued to include persons in the church who were known for their piety, heroic charity, or even great knowledge of God. Like many things people do, over time there came to be the need for some order and regulation of this practice. Eventually a process developed roughly 1000 years ago where a case had to be made with actual witnesses to a potential saint’s sanctity and there was the additional witness that when people sought their intercessions, miraculous healings or results were experienced. If a credible case could be made and stood up to scrutiny, the pope as head of the church would officially enter their name into the list of the church’s saints. This final step is called canonization.
|The Pantheon in Rome|
There is another historic thread that I wish to pull on that might give further insight into how this practice began and was extended. When the Roman world was largely pagan this didn’t mean it was not religious. Actually the Romans and Greeks had a god for everything and nearly every level of society had fraternities dedicated to one god or another. In most Roman families there was also the veneration of one’s ancestors and on certain days, feasts and prayers offered in their honor. As Christianity took greater hold of Roman society many times the pagan shrines so common in their folk religion were repurposed and retooled to become places where saints could be honored. One of the great buildings of the ancient world was the Pantheon in Rome. The word Pantheon is a combination word meaning “all gods” thus this was a grand temple to every god. Later this was converted to Christian church in the early Middle Ages. In Egypt, a civilization known for a multitude of gods, I have visited temple after temple that had the faces of gods chiseled out and crosses cut in pillars indicating they had been converted to houses of Christian worship in the early Christian era. By no means am I suggesting the practice of canonizing saints is paganism is Christian garb. What I would suggest is that all cultures have habits of the mind that are deeply entrenched. God doesn’t wipe our brains clean at conversion like a computer memory card, but rather over time converts even our patterns of thinking and behaving to be Christian. The reverencing of people who are great examples of the Christian faith seems to me to be a far greater replacement to a pantheon of pagan gods. Replacement of bad habits and ways of thinking is certainly in concord with the process of Christian conversion.
From my protestant perspective there are a few issues regarding saints that I find disturbing. I cannot find direct references in Scripture that either commends or condones the practice of honoring certain saints or seeking their intercession. As I have studied and sought to understand this practice by reading Roman Catholic theology, the understanding I have is that Catholics do not and are not taught to pray to the saints, but rather they ask for the saint’s intercessory prayer to be offered and added to those of Christ and the angels before the throne of God on their behalf. The premise of this belief is that the body of Christ includes those living on earth and in heaven. Just as it is scriptural for me to pray on behalf of my brothers and sisters and to seek their prayers and intercessions, it is just as scriptural to enjoin the prayers of my brothers and sisters in heaven. While I find this line of thinking at least cogent, it’s other entailments strike me as being imported to the understanding of scripture. For instance the Bible teaches that all Christians are saints and all are judged by the Lord regarding the reality of their righteous works and rewarded accordingly. That is the plain reading of scripture. But what of capital “S” saints who are assigned specialty areas for their intercessions? For example St. Jude is who you turn to if you are faced with a hopeless situation or St. Teresa if you suffer from migraines. Having specialty intercessors like this strikes me as quite odd, but perhaps this is a continuation of the manifold gifts of the Church as mentioned in Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4.
|Souls released from Purgatory|
Another dimension to the canonization of saints is that the sainted person must have been the cause of two miracles that can pass the scrutiny and investigation of the church here on earth. The declaration of the church is that they know this person is in heaven. Part and parcel with that is the belief that most Christians, at least Catholic ones, go to purgatory immediately after dying. Purgatory is loosely based on 1 Corinthians 3:13 which teaches that the believers works will be tested by fire. Testing by fire relates to the purification of ore and the idea is that a Christian goes through a purification process before entering the presence of God where the last vestiges of our worldliness and sin nature are extinguished. For some this may be a brief stop, for others who did not cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their sanctification during their lifetime on earth, this may be 1000’s of years. When a saint is canonized it is a declaration by the church that this particular person had such sanctity that they have passed on through purgatory and now dwell in glory.
It is this belief and the Roman Catholic church selling opportunities to people to buy themselves or their loved ones a shortened stint in purgatory that was at least partly the cause of the Roman Catholic/Protestant split almost 500 years ago. Although the Roman Catholic church has outlawed the sale of these privileges for cash money, it is not inaccurate to say they are offered freely by the church for visiting the grave or relics of a saint. It is also true that by placing yourself in close proximity to such things that your prayers are more empowered and God gives great blessings. To my knowledge these beliefs are not required of Roman Catholics, but are certainly taught and considered very traditional and mainstream. Anyone who knows me, knows I have an abiding respect for the Catholic church and its long journey through human history. I also believe in the power of holy biography (such as stories of the saints) which serves the church by helping its people see the scriptures lived out giving us an example to follow. But as a Protestant, I place the authority of belief and practice within the Scriptures alone and don’t see in them a clear teaching that would make the canonization of saints anything more than a long and venerable tradition without the benefit of Biblical roots.
While I do question the exegetical conclusions of some of these verses used on them, I would recommend these sites for a sympathetic reading on the Roman Catholic ideas and thinking regarding the intercessions of the saints and the process of canonizing them. As I do this I invoke the protection of the evangelical saint C.S. Lewis (who was neither evangelical or saintly) who said the best way to understand someone you disagree with is to read sympathetically seeking to understand their point of view rather than resorting immediately to arguments from the opposition. I try to practice this myself and recommend it wholeheartedly as it leads to honesty and understanding both of which contribute to civil debate and clarity of thought.
Having explained a bit of the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic church regarding saints, I turn now to the lives of John XXIII and John Paul II and speak of their importance to all people, but especially to Christians of all affiliations. The best definition of a saint I have ever heard is that a saint is a person who makes it easier to believe in God. In both cases, John XXIII and John Paul II have met that standard.
Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli 1881-1963)
One of my favorite anecdotes about John XXIII was a story he told on himself about lying in bed late one night pondering a theological question for which he couldn’t find an answer. Half asleep he finally resolved that he would just ask the pope about it. A moment later, he shot up in bed realizing he was the pope. Well, he said, I guess I’ll just have to ask God directly on this one! Another story is told about John XXIII that a reporter asked him how many people actually work at the Vatican. He paused for a moment and with a mischievous smile said “about half of them”.
Before becoming pope, Roncalli was a Vatican representative in several Eastern and Western European countries and during World War II was well-known among the Jewish community for helping people escape from Nazi persecution. As the pope, John XXIII was known for sneaking out of the Vatican at night and quietly ministering to people in Rome’s poorer neighborhoods. No doubt this was the inspiration for the story line of Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) in which Anthony Quinn who plays a future pope who frequently spends his nights helping care for the poor of Rome dressed as a common priest.
|Baldassar Cossa (Antipope John XXIII)|
Taking the name John XXIII was a statement regarding the Western Schism (1378-1418), an event obscure to most people today but shook Europe to the core when it happened. There had been a split in the papacy with two popes claiming legitimacy at one time and even for a brief time three popes. One of the popes of this time period named Baldassar Cossa took the name John XXIII. In taking this name in 1958, Cardinal Roncalli was stating this past pope from Florence was never a legitimate pope.
John 23 began calling for a new church council 3 months into his papacy. His election was a complete surprise (especially to him) and it was expected that because of his advanced age his would be a short, caretaking papacy. It was short, but monumental.
His theme for this council was aggiornamento or bringing up to date. Vatican II promulgated no new doctrines, but instead signaled to the world that it was moving in a direction of speaking to it rather than reacting against it all the time. Although, John XXIII died before the council was over, the next successor of St Peter, Paul IV continued the council and brought to a conclusion.
|Vatican II Council|
The 2nd Vatican Council revised Catholic liturgy calling for mass to be said in the local tongue of a congregation instead of Latin (although Latin was acceptable). Vatican II also opened the doors for more interfaith dialogue between the Vatican and other Christian denominations and non-Christian religions. It was this council which changed the status of Protestants from heretical sect to “separated bretheren.”
Even as Vatican II moved in the direction of vernacular language for mass, John XXIII himself insisted that the actual church council use Latin as well as all Catholic seminaries were to teach in Latin. He believed if the church spoke with a universal language there would not be less confusion and misunderstanding. However, the reality was that many of the bishops around the world really didn’t understand Latin at all and in many places the Latin mass was jettisoned for a vernacular one just minutes after the closing benediction of the council.
The 2nd Vatican Council did not establish a worldwide unity of Christian communions, but it was truly the most ecumenical of all councils throughout the 1600 year history of having them. 2500 bishops, cardinals, patriarchs, monks, and denominational representatives were present at the council. Pope John XXIII had reached out to protestant and orthodox leaders as well inviting their attendance and participation. And while this had limited success due to centuries of animosities (many of which were legitimate grievances on the non-Catholic side), it did set the stage for a future thawing of relationships in the last quarter of the 20th century.
It is an interesting detail that Bishop Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul II) was one of the delegates at the Vatican II Council. It was led by the elderly John XXIII who wanted the church to update itself while Wojtyla, a young man, opposed many of the changes and wanted to stick with the traditions of the church.
John XXIII’s viewpoint on religious liberty changed a long held mental habit of the Catholic Church. It had been the tendency of the church to demand religious liberty of others in places where it was a minority, but deny it to others wherever it had ascendancy. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, John considered it a fundamental human right for all people to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. This did not mean he was a universalist per se, but as someone who considered himself to be a universal leader on behalf of Christ, he wanted to speak to all people as equals respecting their dignity and rights as God does.
In his lifetime people called him “The Good Pope”. He had a reputation for being a humble and caring man without any of the pretensions of royalty and privilege that were exercised by popes in the Medieval and Renaissance eras. This was something he and Pope John Paul II shared in common. They were both men of humble backgrounds and when raised to high office, both shepherded their church in great humility. The tradition seems to be continuing with the current Pope Francis who is also quite popular especially among those who have been marginalized by society.
Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla 1920-2005)
John Paul II was by every measurement one of the greatest and most surprising popes to have ever led the Roman Catholic church. He was elected in 1978 which is known as the year of the three popes. Pope Paul IV started the year and died in office, then John Paul I, the smiling pope was elected but died a month later. There have long been rumors that his sudden death was suspicious, but the papacy is an office usually held by men of advanced age (and hopefully wisdom) and mortality certainly comes with the territory. At the end of the conclave, John Paul II is elected. Not only was the Polish Bishop and Cardinal the first non-Italian to hold the office for many centuries, but by papal standards he was a young man being only 58 years old at the time of his elevation.
|JPII in Poland 1979|
John Paul II will always be remembered as the one who began the end of communism in Eastern Europe in his visit to Poland in 1979 some ten months after beginning his papacy. He wanted to visit his homeland and the communist government of Poland reluctantly welcomed him all the while trying to subvert any impact he might have. John Paul never directly confronted the communists but called his homeland back to Christ and to be a witness in the world. He also taught that God is in charge of human history and man suppresses this at his own risk. Millions of Poles attended the open air masses put on by the Pope and they took his message to heart. At that moment communism collapsed in Poland and this collapse spread eventually to even Russia. John Paul believed his elevation to pope was part of God’s plan for Poland and the Slavic peoples. As history played out, God won over communistic atheism.
|JPII and Reagan on State visit|
In May 1981, a Turkish terrorist nearly assassinated John Paul II in St. Peter’s square. I will never forget that day as I had just started working in a newsroom. As the junior reporter I was given the privilege of changing the ribbon on the old teletype machine (a filthy job and therefore given to subordinates) which required turning the machine off for a few minutes. When I turned it back on the machine started ringing its bells which meant a news flash of something so important programming was usually interrupted. Needless to say, hearts were racing as just months before an attempt was made on President Reagan’s life and now another world leader in jeopardy. Several years ago an Italian commission ruled that the assassination attempt was linked to the Soviet Union in retaliation for his support of the pro-democracy movement in Poland. In 1983 he met with his assassin in jail and offered his forgiveness.
That John Paul was considered a world leader is without question. But he was also labeled by many as a bit of a rock-star pope as well. That’s hard to deny since his papal visits all over the world (over 100 different countries) filled arenas and coliseums and young people from all over would pack out his World Youth Day appearances. Even as his body was ravaged with Parkinson’s disease in his last years of life (he lived to be 85) he continued his public appearances to the delight of the multitudes.
In 2013 I visited Poland and was able to tour John Paul II’s childhood home in Wadowice as well as see the bishop’s palace in Krakow where he resided before going to Rome. The memories of him and the affection for him was palpable there. He was a devoted Christian man and scholar but also a man of the people. He was an athlete but also an actor, a theologian but also a poet. As a protestant, I’ve always looked askance at his Marian theology and devotion which was extremely great. But his life story included being bereft of his mother at a very early age and being raised by his widower father. We in the church have long looked to Christ to be a father to the fatherless. Perhaps for this man in particular, Mary was a mother to the motherless.
John Paul’s pontificate was the second longest in history and the longest of the 20th century. He was loved by Catholics but greatly admired by Protestants alike as a man of God, goodwill, and prayer. As pope, I think his record of seeking reconciliation and peace is unprecedented. Not only were historic wrongs done to the Protestants and Jews apologized for, but John Paul apologized for the Church’s participation in the African slave trade and even for the 4th Crusade of the Middle Ages that attacked shamefully the Christian city of Constantinople. Efforts were also made that resulted in a joint theological statement between Catholics and Lutherans on their many agreements regarding the doctrine of justification; something centuries ago caused them to anathametize one another.
Of course late in his pontificate, John Paul presided over the priest sex abuse scandals. His efforts seemed too little, too late, and often tone deaf to the victims and their families. On balance, when this came to light he was a very old and sick man and the people around him may not have done their best in this situation. Nonetheless, John Paul II finished life well. At his funeral many cried out “Santo Subito!” Sainthood now. Many saints in the past were declared so because of popular acclaim and many people considered Pope John Paul II a saint while he was alive.
In the cases of both men the traditional rules for canonization are being breached. Pope John XXIII is only credited with one verifiable miracle instead of the required two, while John Paul II is being canonized a mere 9 years after his death. Normally a case for sainthood is not allowed to be opened until 5 years after a person’s death and it is not uncommon for the entire process to decades and even centuries. This gives room for the memory of a person to mature in the minds of others but also time enough for their virtue to be challenged by contravening facts if there are any. Put another way, if there are skeletons in someone’s closet, 5 years is enough to hear if any of them are rattling. It is not a foregone conclusion that a pope will become a saint (some of them have been murderers, criminals and some have even been thought to be aligned with the devil, but that’s a whole other story!). Out of the 266 popes only 81 have been canonized. This was unprecedented in church history that two popes would be canonized at the same time and they bring the official number to 83.
Johnson, Paul Pope John XXIII. (Boston : Little, Brown, and Company), 1974
Noonan, Peggy John Paul the Great. (New York: Viking), 2005
Woodbridge, John D. and Frank A. James III Church History from Pre-Reformation to the Present Day : The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context V.2 (Grand Rapids : Zondervan), 2013