Can we get some historical context on the canonized popes?

Can we get some historical context on the canonized popes? July 8, 2013

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.

CNN doesn’t do much better in their main feature, but they do include an opinion piece explaining, “Why does a pope become a saint?

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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

11 responses to “Can we get some historical context on the canonized popes?”

  1. It should be noted that the reason so many of the early popes receive the designation (before “canonization” was invented) is that almost all of them were martyred.

  2. Joe,

    If I’m reading David M. Perry’s quote accurately, he’s not got it right. God “acts,” the saint is the intervener between the one who asks the saint to pray for (or with) him/her to God, and God.

  3. The other issue, as Deacon Greg Kandra points out, is that Pope Francis has waived the requirement of a second miracle for Pope John XXIII: When was the last time that happened for anyone, never mind a pope?

    In fact, when the news of Good Pope John’s upcoming canonization was announced, it got completely under-reported. Hardly anyone noted it in a headline, and yet, it was totally unexpected. No one was talking about this before last Friday. What I don’t understand is why all of these outlets that denigrate John Paul and Benedict as supposedly being against Vatican II aren’t blasting the news that the guy who called the Council in the first place is being canonized without the required second miracle. You’d think they’d be jumping all over that, but they’re not. What’s up with that?

  4. Not only were the first papal saints martyrs, but almost all the non-papal saints. It is only with “white martyrdom” (living and dieing as a holy ascetic monk or nun) that non-martyr recognized saints became common.

  5. Very good points. The only flaw I can see in the piece is a date. Since Pope Pius X was canonized on May 29, 1954, the beginning of the third paragraph should read, “From 1572 to 1954,. . . “

  6. I didn’t think of it in terms of the first popes to be canonized in over almost 500 years. Thanks for pointing that out. Pope Paul VI is also in the process, and it’s rather amazing that all deceased popes from Pius XII to John Paul II (setting aside John Paul I) are in the process.

    I find it somewhat intriguing that the political angle – which the media seem unable to avoid in dealing with religion and especially the Catholic church, a phenomenon that I lament – is relatively missing here. I find myself now criticizing the media for the lack of the political angle!

    I mean, the *political* significance of Pope John’s canonization (and Pope Paul VI’s beatification) with respect to Vatican II is definitely worth exploring. While it is true that a person is either already a saint or never will be one regardless of the church’s recognition, someone could in fact be declared a saint who is not for political (or other) reasons. The canonization of John Paul II seems inevitable to me, given the length of his pontificate and the volume and breadth of his writings and how he kept working until the very end. And yet, even so, it may be political that such a popular pope be eventually declared a saint. I would personally prefer if the church to wait a generation or so, so that heady affection can abate a little.

    • Please don’t set aside Pope John Paul I, since he is definitely “in the process.” The Positio for his cause was turned into the Congregation for the Causes of Saints last October 17, his 100th birthday. The process on the miracle is finished as well, and awaiting Vatican approval.

      Even though his time on the chair of Peter was short, and the volume of his writings was very small in comparison to JPII, I don’t expect it to make any difference in his chances for canonization. For Popes, like everyone else, are supposed to be judged on their practice of heroic virtue, not their other accomplishments, though those are nice too.

      So the official score card is:

      Pius XII – Venerable
      John XXIII – Blessed, about to be declared Saint:
      Paul VI – Servant of God
      John Paul I – Servant of God
      John Paul II – Blessed about to be declared Saint.

      (Key: Servant of God – designation for anyone whose cause has been opened; Venerable – decree of heroic virtue approved; Blessed – a miracle confirmed – limited approval of cult – Saint – another miracle, and solemn declaration that the person is in heaven.

      For more about the connection between Blessed/St. John XXIII and Servant of God John Paul I, see here:

      • Thank you, Lori, for the info on JP-I. I wasn’t aware.

        Clearly the determination of sainthood should be based on sanctity and not prolificness.

        It is uncanny that ALL of the deceased popes since of the last 50+ years have their causes in the works after such a long gap.

  7. “Pope Francis sped two of his predecessors toward sainthood on Friday”

    It seems to me that the media tends to view the Vatican as a purely political machine, they often use words that echo what could be a political story. For example, if we look at a hypothetical Canadian story: “Prime Minister Stephan Harper sped two of his predecessors twoards the Senate on Friday.” Though it is not technically correct (the Crown appoints senators), it makes sense as a lede to a story. I’m not Roman Catholic, but even I can understand what the is happening more than the media.

  8. Though I can understand why Popes John XXIII, John Paul I, and Paul VI are considered for canonization, I do wonder why the rush for John Paul II. There are elements of his papacy that demand further scrutiny, it seems to me. For example, his embrace of Maciel and the Legionnaires of Christ – John Paul did nothing when the allegations against Maciel were first raised, and it fell upon Benedict XVI to clean up the mess. John Paul II did not distinguish himself either in the burgeoning sex-abuse crisis in the Church. I understand getting the technicalities of the canonization process correctly – I do wish more attention were paid to what constitutes canonizable holiness.

    • JP-II also got rid of the office of “devil’s advocate” whose job it was to point out the reasons why someone might not be a saint after all. Sanctity and administrative talent are not quite the same thing. If JP-II were merely inept in that regard or culpably negligent is not something we can easily sort out. The same sort of things could be leveled against Paul VI, by the way, whose cause I find much more problematic than JP-II’s. But that’s just my opinion.

Close Ad