The late Pope John Paul II canonized more saints than all of his predecessors combined, at least since the modern procedures were set in place in the 16th century.
Many Catholics regarded that as one of John Paul II’s greatest achievements because it highlighted his emphasis on spirituality. Others were less enthusiastic about the late pope’s penchant for making so many new saints.
They were concerned that one man, over so long a period of years, should put his own personal stamp on the concept of sanctity, when there is no single model that clearly supersedes all others.
And when an individual pope is a man of such profound spirituality himself, we have all the more reason to remember that Catholicism, over the course of centuries, has given birth to a rich diversity of spiritualities, no one of which has an exclusive claim on authenticity.
Moreover, clerics and religious continued to be beatified and canonized during the previous pontificate in numbers far greater than those of ordinary lay persons. And of the laity beatified and canonized under John Paul II, relatively few lived what most people today would regard as ordinary married lives, complete with children and grandchildren, and without having entered or founded a religious community after the death of their spouse.
One may ask now if Pope Benedict XVI will bring about any changes in the traditional pattern of saint-making. Although it is perhaps too early to tell, there are already a few signs that there might be a change in emphasis, if not in direction as well.
First, the new pope, unlike his predecessor, is making a much clearer distinction between beatification and canonization. John Paul II presided at both ceremonies, thereby unwittingly blurring the crucial difference between the two statuses. Benedict XVI has already decided not to preside at the Eucharist at which candidates for beatification are elevated.
Second, it is likely that Benedict will canonize far fewer new saints than did his predecessor. He has already indicated that he expects to produce far fewer encyclicals and to make fewer foreign trips.
This past April, the pope sent a letter to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in which he reaffirmed the importance of the role of diocesan bishops in the process of saint-making. To his credit, John Paul II had revised the procedures for canonization in 1983 so that the process would begin at the diocesan level rather than in the Vatican.
Benedict XVI, however, is clearly concerned that the scrutiny at the diocesan level be conducted according to the strictest of standards. It is not enough, he insists, that the candidate be “distinguished for conformity with the Gospel (or have) special ecclesial and social merits” (“Standards for Saints,” Origins [6/1/06, p. 47]). They must “truly enjoy a firm and widespread fame of holiness and miracles or martyrdom.”
Nor are so-called “moral miracles” adequate, where, for example, the reading of a book written by the candidate for sainthood leads to the conversion of the reader.
Claims of martyrdom also must be evaluated with great care. The spilling of blood and the acceptance of death, however heroic and inspiring, are not sufficient in themselves to constitute martyrdom. They must be accompanied by a true hatred of the faith on the part of the persecutors.
Benedict’s pontificate has only recently entered its second year. His priorities and style are still unfolding.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.