Q. Our study group’s discussion of church history raises some questions about saints. We know the criteria for making saints today, but what were they at the beginning of the church? It seems there were lots of saints in the early days. When did today’s process begin? We know there were bad popes, but why are some popes saints and some are not? (Wisconsin)
A. The church, of course, does not "make saints." When the church canonizes someone, it simply means that all Catholics may now venerate that person in public liturgies. In fact, the word itself indicates that the person’s name may be included in the "canon," the eucharistic prayer of the Mass.
As you suggest, the method of naming someone a saint has been a long process. Originally, especially for martyrs, it was accomplished through general acclamation by the whole Christian community. Gradually, local bishops established criteria for sainthood in their own territories. From there, the cult often spread to other areas as well.
By far, the vast majority of Christians we call saints — historians have estimated around 10,000 — were "canonized" in processes something like that.
Even today, it is not uncommon for Catholics of a certain region to honor one of their own as a saint, even if the individual is not officially canonized. Most Catholic people in Central America, for example, revere as a saint Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a defender and friend of the poor and native populations, who was shot and killed in 1980 while offering Mass.
Almost 800 years ago (1234), Pope Gregory IX decreed that only the Bishop of Rome could canonize saints, since that action offered the saint for veneration by the universal church. Since then, rather less than 1,000 people have been canonized, most of them (483) by Pope John Paul II.
A formal canonization process similar to the one today was established in the 16th century but has been revised several times.
Interestingly, while dozens of popes in earlier centuries are honored as saints, only three popes have been canonized during the past 900 years. One of them was Pope Celestine V, an eccentric elderly hermit, chosen as pope in 1294 much against his will, when the electors couldn’t agree on a more suitable candidate. Totally unhappy with the role, he resigned after five months.
The others were Pope Pius V (1566-1572) and Pope Pius X (1903-1914).
Why so few pope saints in recent centuries? One significant reason seems to be a concern, perhaps real and wise, that canonizing a pope may be viewed by many as canonizing all of his political and theological writings. For obvious reasons, there is no little reluctance to do this.
Perhaps we experienced something of this after the death of Pope John Paul in 2005. Many wanted a quick canonization to put the church’s seal of approval on all his teachings, especially some that other leaders in the church tended to approach more questioningly. They were days of deep emotion, witnessed by all the signs at his death demanding santo subito — make him a saint right now.
Whether for this or other reasons, Pope Benedict XVI seems inclined to slow the rush and take time to let history give a better and more balanced picture before taking such a step.
Finally, "saint" is simply an anglicized version of the Latin word sanctus ("holy"). Scripture applies the name to the living as well as the dead. St. Paul addresses his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, for example, to the sancti, the saints, the "holy ones," in those Christian communities.
Much more fascinating information may be found in a modern classic on the subject, Making Saints, by Kenneth Woodward (Simon and Schuster).
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.