Yet another pope is on the fast track to sainthood. Next month, Pope Francis will beatify the predecessor who has probably influenced him most, Pope John Paul I. He was, undoubtedly, a man of great holiness, who was humble in his life, likeable in his manner and averse to ostentation. But do we really need another papal saint?
Pope Francis has canonised Pope St John XXIII, Pope St Paul VI and Pope St John Paul II and the cause of Venerable Pope Pius XII is progressing steadily. Indeed, what is remarkable about these canonisations is how quickly they proceed.
At the funeral of Pope John Paul II, his supporters chanted “Santo subito!” – sainthood now. The process was indeed “subito” by comparison with the normal processes of canonisation, which can take decades or centuries, with the exception of martyrs.
All these popes were holy men. Yet canonisation is about more than acknowledging that they are in heaven. It sends signals to the world about the models of virtue that the Church is putting before the faithful. Some popes, like St Gregory the Great, are outstanding embodiments of Christian virtue. But the popes of the last century were not set in that mould.
The reason the canonisation of popes by popes looks odd to the outside world is that it seems that pontiffs are marking their own homework, or rather, that of their predecessors. By making saints out of popes, it does no harm to the standing of the other successors of St Peter. The present pope regards John Paul I as a role model, yet this reverence does not have to be translated into canonisation. To have so many popes made saints in quick succession gives the unfortunate impression that the sainthood goes with the job. Indeed, future popes may feel that the title accompanies a creditable performance in the role, rather than being a reward for genuine heroic virtue.
There are other models of sanctity that the Church could reward with canonisation. Exemplary and saintly laypeople deserve recognition, sometimes over and above those who are martyrs. People who are heroically virtuous in married life, who fulfil their duties to their community and to the poor, who live out the Christian life in its fullness in the secular world, may also merit canonisation. By all means let us draw inspiration from John Paul I in his humility. Canonisation is another matter.
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