The pope and the princess – holiness really is for all

Pope John Paul I and Elizabeth of France

The Catholic Church may well have two new saints at some future point, thanks to recent decisions that have moved forward the causes of Pope John Paul I and someone very different, Madame Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI.

The cause of John Paul I, whose brief tenure of the See of Peter I am old enough to remember, will find ready support from people like myself. Albino Luciani was a wonderful pastor, and his death represented a huge loss to the Church. In his unassuming manner, in his gentle and affable approach, he was everyone’s idea of the perfect parish priest. His brief pontificate has, as its lasting memorial, the man himself, bringing to world attention one who had until then be known only in his native Italy. Like Saint John XXIII, Pope Luciani came from humble circumstances in the north of Italy, and like Pope Roncalli never lost touch with his roots. Indeed, his native village has kept his memory alive, as one can see from the excellent website of the foundation that bears his name. Italians always treasure the memory of famous native sons, thanks to their deep attachment to the land in which they were born, and the villages or cities where they were born. But it cannot be doubted for a minute that Pope Luciani is more than a local hero. He was, and indeed is, deeply loved by all.

It is not true to say, in my opinion, that Pope Luciani is now the Venerable simply because he was Pope; the fact that he was Pope certainly brought him to attention, but it also creates a certain difficulty. Is the Catholic Church to canonise every Pope of recent times? While the cause of Pius XII is “stuck”, every other Pope since then is on the way to canonisation – but if one looks back one finds in the list of Popes only two Blesseds between Pope Saint Pius V (died 1572) and Pope Saint Pius X (died 1914), namely Blessed Innocent XI who died in 1689, and Blessed Pius IX who died in 1878, though there are also two servants of God as well.  The recent spate of canonisations means that if a future Pope is not canonised he will somehow look “odd”. And yet, going down the list of Popes who have not been canonised one sees some very fine Pontiffs. When it comes to canonisations, of Popes at least, more really means less.

As for the cause of Madame Elizabeth, which the French bishops have decided to open, this will bring joy to many hearts as well. Madame Elizabeth has long been recognised as a saint by those who are familiar with her life. (Wikipedia provides a very full biography here.) There can be no doubt that Elizabeth was deeply religious, as indeed were most of her family. Her grandfather was the notorious womaniser Louis XV, but everyone else in the Bourbon clan who came after (with one or two exceptions) was extremely devout. Among their number was Madame Louise, Louis XV’s youngest daughter, who became a Carmelite and had the excellent good luck to die on the eve of the Revolution. She is now a Venerable, though her cause seems to have stagnated since the nineteenth century.

If Madame Elizabeth is raised to the altars it will be interesting to see whether she is to be revered as a saint, or as a martyr as well. It is certainly arguable that she was killed in odium of the faith, as were her brother and sister-in-law, the King and Queen, given that they all opposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and that the Terror was directed against the Ancien Regime, both civil and religious. She lived an exemplary life, and she could easily have left France, but chose to share her brother’s fate: as such she illustrates what we really mean by family values. Given her complete innocence of life (something that even the odious Robespierre seems to have grasped) there is no real political implication to her canonisation at all. Her relics are lost, which rather fits with what we know about her personality: shy, humble and devoted to God alone.

These two very different holy people, one a Pontiff, another a Princess, illustrate a timeless truth. Holiness is for all, whatever your role in life.