Saint-making – the Great and the Good
Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were canonised today at a ceremony at St Peter's in Rome – the first time that two dead popes have simultaneously been declared saints, and the first time any dead pope has been declared a saint in the simultaneous presence of two living popes. Pope Paul VI is to follow on in October when he will be beatified.
It is not clear at this stage whether Pope Francis will continue waiving the requirement for miracles to establish saintliness and holiness. But, as the seemingly automated pope-to-saint conveyor belt churns out these sanctifications, it is worth asking why the 20th century produced especially holy popes compared to all the previous centuries. Indeed, in the six centuries between Gregory the Great and Thomas Beckett, there were no new canonisations at all. Perhaps waves of emotional fervour fused with X-Factor populism require the contemporary cult of "Santo Subito".
His Grace can't help thinking about poor Pope John Paul I, who was, by all accounts, a truly humble and very saintly man. And poor Pope Benedict XVI, who is also not likely to be hurriedly enrolled among the sanctified when he dies, for his papacy wasn't sufficiently modernist for the fluffy and pink zeitgeist.
Pope John XXIII becomes Pope Saint John XXIII (or Pope Saint John the Good) for having called the historic Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Perhaps this was miracle enough to establish his saintliness. But, for many Roman Catholics, not least the traditionalist Pope Emeritus Benedict, that Council sowed the progressive seeds of an awful lot of ecclesio-doctrinal confusion. For Cardinal Kasper, its documents are intentionally ambiguous:
"In many places, [the Council Fathers] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction."Speaking of Nostra Aetate, Pope Benedict XVI said:
"Thus, in a precise and extraordinarily dense document, a theme is opened up whose importance could not be foreseen at the time. The task that it involves and the efforts that are still necessary in order to distinguish, clarify and understand, are appearing ever more clearly. In the process of active reception, a weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance; for this reason the Christian faith, from the outset, adopted a critical stance towards religion, both internally and externally."Pope John Paul II becomes Pope Saint John Paul II (or Pope Saint John Paul the Great) despite having presided over the Vatican during the global scandal of child sex abuse and the proliferation of priestly paedophilia. Indeed, many of those who sought to protect the legacy and good name of Pope Benedict XVI emphasise the undeniable chronic failures of Pope John Paul II, with some pointing to the papal sinecure gifted to Cardinal Bernard Law following allegations of a systematic cover-up in his archdiocese of Boston.
But none of this seems to matter. Perhaps in his personal and sainted holiness, Pope John Paul II was either oblivious to the thousands of cases of priestly rape and torture of children, or he really did do everything he possibly could to cleanse the Roman temple and mitigate the spread of evil. In truth, we cannot know.
But on saintly intercession, the Church of England's Article XXII is clear:
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.Let us by all means have saints, for they are holy ones who are sanctified by virtue of being "in Christ". But divine perfection comes not from the cultic declaration of the intercessory efficacy of John Paul the Great or John the Good, but by belonging to the communion of saints and worshipping among the priesthood of believers.
If we are to attribute especial holiness to particular individuals, and acknowledge their personal piety and historic ecclesio-theological contributions beyond the grave, let us this year – in the 500th anniversary year of his birth – make joyful affirmation of the remarkable Reformation saint John Knox.
A Motion has been tabled by Murdo Fraser MSP in the Scottish Parliament to do precisely that, and it has already attracted a number of cross-party signatures:
That the Parliament recognises the 500th anniversary of John Knox’s birth; notes his contribution to modern Scotland and Protestantism; understands that he is recognised as the founding father of the Scottish Reformation and of Presbyterianism in Scotland; encourages Scots to explore his contribution toward the country's religion, government and identity; notes that Knox helped write the new confession of faith and the ecclesiastical order for the newly created reformed church; considers that, with hundreds of thousands of members, this denomination still plays a significant role in modern day Scotland; believes that Knox's work helped to shape the democratic form of governance that the Church of Scotland adopted; acknowledges the events taking place to celebrate this anniversary in his birthplace, Haddington, and commemorates the life of a man whom it sees as one of Scotland’s greatest sons.As Scotland seemingly moves towards historic independence, let us not forget the history of the Kirk or the uniqueness of Scottish devotion and their contribution to the Christian spirituality of the United Kingdom. Some will only see the arid summations of Calvinist orthodoxy flowering on very rocky soil. But John Knox's didactic and polemical contribution was deep, tender and loving: from the Secession congregations in the Lowlands to the evangelical Establishment in the Highlands, he made the Scottish Reformation a movement of great spiritual gain, of fellowship, of family and nationhood.
John Knox may not have been declared 'blessed', 'sanctified', 'great' or 'good', but he is undoubtedly a saint. By sweeping away too many superstitious cults and tearing down too many bogus traditions, we are in danger of forgetting that supernatural sanctity and miraculous manifestation did not die with the Apostles.