There’s so much good stuff out there on Sunday’s dual canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. I call your attention in particular, to Tod Worner‘s “St John Paul II: The 20th Century’s Greatest Dissident” and Dr Greg Popcak‘s “Pope St John Paul II & Pope St John XXIII: Partners in the Universal Call to Holiness.” My Patheos Catholic Channel neighbors, along with the entire Catholic media world, will continue to provide updates and reflections throughout the weekend and beyond.
Here are just a few thoughts of my own—on canonization, on the not-good stuff that’s out there, and on these two saintly men in particular. Pope-pourri, to quote an actual Jeopardy category.
Sanctity 101: Because It Bears Repeating
What happens this weekend is not the making of saints, which only God can do. Canonization—whether it happens by tradition or acclaim or martyrdom or papal fiat or, as in more recent centuries, through a procedural series of steps—is the Church’s formal recognition of sanctity as witnessed in an individual’s life. Canonization literally adds a saint to the canon, allowing local churches or religious orders or the universal Church to celebrate a memorial of the saint’s virtues as part of the liturgical year.
In the history of the Church, recognition of sainthood has come instantaneously in some cases, painfully slowly in others. One century’s heretic Maid of Orleans may become another’s St Jeanne d’Arc. The basilica honoring St Francis was built by craftsmen who knew the Poor Man of Assisi in the flesh. Hildegard of Bingen, named a Doctor of the Church more than 800 years after her death, was never formally canonized, though the Doctor of the Church thing probably serves as a kind of honorary degree. And of course there have been saints—Christopher the most beloved among them—who have been dropped from the canon, not because they were any less saintly but because it’s not entirely clear they ever existed.
Saints, by the way, are never recognized for what they did in their official positions in life, but for their personal holiness and radical witness to the Gospel in one or more of its many aspects. So kings and queens aren’t honored for the way they ruled, but for how they subjected themselves to God’s reign. And popes do not, by virtue of being pope, have any head start on holiness over the rest of us. Saints are not honored as paragons of perfection on earth, but acknowledged for their all-too-human struggle to bring themselves and others to heaven. While they are in our midst, they are unpreserved from bad decisions, often piss people (including religious officials) off, and can both betray and be betrayed by those entrusted to their care.
Sainthood is a funny business, in the best sense of God’s hilarity, and there’s no reason on earth why anyone should carp about Too Soon or Not Soon Enough or Not Enough Miracles (and One Is a Card Trick! as Fr Guido Sarducci used to complain) or shriek Wait! They’re Canonizing Her? I’m Holier than She Was on a Wicked Spring Break Friday Night! No reason on earth, because no carping in heaven.
Why It Bears Repeating
Because with regard to this weekend’s dynamic duo canonization, a remarkably large number of people who should know better are nattering on in astonishing ignorance. Yes, MoDowd, this means you with your A Vote for John Paul II Is the Church Endorsing Child Abuse screed, replete with factual and theological errors and studded with kneejerk calumniating of the Pope Emeritus. And yes, SSPX, this means you with your A Vote for Either of These Two Fake Popes by the Two Fake Popes that Followed Them Is a Heretical Church Endorsing a Heretical Non-Council nonsense. Both Ms Dowd and the SSPX—like many of their blogosphere counterparts in this strangest of bedfellowships—want to assure us that their cause is true and their vituperation righteous because they are “Catholic.”
On a Personal Note
I, having been alive and Catholic (mostly) during the full duration of the papacies of both John XXIII and John Paul II, am pleased as punch (mostly*) about these two holy men being raised to the altar—whichever way the altar faces. I fell in love with the Church of my cradling because of Good Pope John (as I wrote here), and though I fell away from the Church for a time during John Paul’s years it wasn’t due to him, but to me. The spirit of John XXIII brought me back to the Church through the good graces of and the good working of grace upon the holy man I too once called the Rottweiler, and Francis has me deep in love all over again.
Do I welcome John XXIII to the canon as some hippie revenge against the trad reform? In no way. Do I blink away the horrendous state of the institution for which John Paul II poured out his life, or excuse what may have been his own contributions to that state? Absolutely not. Instead, I celebrate God’s hilarity, His holy joy, in giving the world two more examples of fully human persons who allowed themselves to be acted upon by the Holy Spirit. We need all of those we can get, subito. Why wait?
* I have one hiccup in my joy about the canonization of John Paul II. In 1987, I was hired by the Bishops’ Communication Committee to write the narration for a TV documentary the USCCB was co-producing with KPIX in San Francisco, preparing American viewers of all backgrounds for the papal visit that August. With a delightfully diverse production crew including a Jewish woman producer and a video-and-sound team made up of two brothers who were Italian Baptists(!), I traveled from city to city on the Holy Father’s itinerary, interviewing people who would be meeting with the pope and providing background on the ministerial themes assigned to each stop. It was one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. The richness of the material—which ranged from sharing stories of immigrants seeking asylum in San Antonio and Miami, to having supper with an African American deacon’s family in Detroit, to tracing the history of US Catholic education in New Orleans, to touring New York’s oldest synagogue—was only topped by the experience of being present later (with my son, my mother, and my mother’s best friend, who was my Confirmation sponsor) in person for the Holy Father’s address to the entertainment community in Los Angeles.
But here’s the thing. One of my tasks in writing the documentary was drafting a greeting for the Holy Father to read at the end of the show, talking about how much he was looking forward to visiting with the American people and conveying his blessings. It was scary enough ghostwriting for a pope, who ended up reading every word unchanged—but we hadn’t bargained on his slow and deliberate delivery in English. To meet the broadcast length, we had to trim his recorded message. The production team told me there was no way that non-Catholics were going to mess with papal delivery, so I had to be the one to make the cuts.
Dear Saint John Paul the Great, please don’t hold it against me that I left a lot of you on the cutting-room floor . . . or that my celebrity-loving mother (God rest her) missed the first few moments of your live speech hanging out in the lobby of the ballroom, sharing cigarettes with Patty Duke, and passed up the chance to leap over three rows of folding chairs (like my friend Michael Amodei did) to kiss your ring in favor of an introduction to Phil Donohue and Marlo Thomas. We’re only human, and we beg your intercession!