If you’re elected Bishop of Rome, you join one of the world’s most exclusive lists. As the Supreme Pontiff of the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church, you are — quite literally — one in a billion. But after you die you have a chance to join an even more exclusive group: papal saints. Out of the 264 deceased popes only 78 have the honor of being canonized.
If you were one of the first 54 popes you had a good shot of making the cut (all of the first 35 popes and 52 of the first 54 were canonized). But since the 1500s, only one man — Pope Pius X, who died in 1914 — has been added to the list. Sixteen others are on the track to sainthood, but last week two former popes were moved to the front of the line: Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.
From 1572 to 1954, only one pope was declared a saint. And now, in 2013, two more are added to the list. In other words, this is significant religion story. So why then isn’t it being treated that way?
A few weeks ago I wrote about how the media covered the second miracle attributed to JP II. This weekend tmatt also wrote about the way journalists cover the divine healing in response to the intercessory prayers of the saints. But while some reporters have covered the miracles, the significance of the event seems to be lost on the media.
Consider, for instance, the lede in the New York Times:
Pope Francis sped two of his predecessors toward sainthood on Friday: John Paul II, who guided the Roman Catholic Church during the end of the cold war, and John XXIII, who assembled the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Pope Francis does not make any person a saint or even speed them along the process. Rather, he declares that the person is with God and is an example of following Christ worthy of imitation by the faithful. The former popes may be closer to being recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, but their status has already been determined by God.
Aside from the misleading lede, there isn’t much additional information in the very brief (400 word) feature. The Times repeats its previous report on the miracles attributed to JPII but doesn’t explain anything about the canonization process or why this is a significant historical event.
Why does a pope become a saint? At its most basic, Catholics believe, a saint is a holy person through whom God intervenes after his or her death to aid the living. Over the first 1,500 years of Catholic history, people generally became saints through popular acclamation rather than through a formal papal process. While there were some saints who were celebrated across the Christian world, the vast majority received only local or regional veneration.
The op-ed by David M. Perry, an associate professor of history at Dominican University, includes facts that should have been added to the original reporting. It also includes some historical context which should have been the heart of the news coverage on this story.
Popes don’t become saints every day — or even every century. To get two in one year is a boon to reporters. Yet many media outlets treat the story as if it were just another press release from the Vatican. Journalist like to believe that they are writing the first draft of history. But to do that they must first recognize when history is being made.