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A nun stands at St Peter's square at The Vatican on April 30, 2011 on the eve of the beatification of late pope John Paul II. (ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images)
A nun stands at St Peter's square at The Vatican on April 30, 2011 on the eve of the beatification of late pope John Paul II. (ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Higgins

Saint making: the blessed politics of canonization Add to ...

He is now Blessed Pope John Paul II and he joins the ranks of some 10 other pontiffs beatified - the penultimate stage in the sainting process that culminates with canonization - since the Counter-Reformation of the 16th century.

Not a long list admittedly, but surprising in its composition. Especially when you consider that, since 1900, the majority of popes are somewhere in this sainting process: The only ones missing are Benedict XV, Pius XI and John Paul I.

Who is excluded is as important as who is included because of what this says about the politics of sainting, shifting notions of holiness, ecclesiological paradigms, pastoral and catechetical strategies for evangelization and the personalities of the pontiffs.

It is dismaying that John XXIII - the man who convoked the Second Vatican Council and inspired millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his expansive personality and humanitarian breadth - should be beatified along with the highly controversial reactionary Pius IX, whose wholesale condemnation of modernity ensured the papacy's isolation from the best currents of thinking then emerging in Europe.

Equally, progress on the file of Pius XII is greatly hampered by the debates around his leadership during the Second World War, most specifically in relation to the Holocaust. The cause of Paul VI, meanwhile, remains at a preliminary stage, although the current Pope, Benedict XVI, continues to praise him for both his encyclical Humanae vitae, reaffirming the church's opposition to artificial birth regulation, and for his prophetic encyclical on global justice and peace, Populorum progressio.

If anything, this speaks to the mosaic of motivations, priorities and intrigues that define the reality of sainting. It is not, and never has been, for the faint of heart. The saints are not an antidote to our agnosticism; they are a still point in the whirligig that is life, an aperture to wholeness; they have given themselves over to what Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has called "that mystery, that perplexity and frustration" that we call God. And that can be quite messy and unconventional.

Although it's true that the cry santo subito (sainthood now) could be heard thunderous, unrelenting and seemingly spontaneous as John Paul II's coffin was shown to the hundreds of thousands gathered in Rome in 2005 for his funeral, canonization by popular acclamation has been out of fashion for a millennium and then some. The regulations and ordinances put in place by various popes over the centuries - partly to ensure they were reserved uniquely to the papacy and partly to curtail the proliferation of abuses that resulted from factionalism, unchecked lobbying, nepotism and the venal exploitation of the faithful's taste for relics and pilgrimages - culminated with the comprehensive On the Beatification of Servants of God and the Canonization of the Blessed by Benedict XIV in 1735.

That work was superseded by the new Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 and the apostolic constitution Divinus perfectionis Magister issued by John Paul II at the same time. This massive overhaul of the procedures involved in sainting resulted in a more expeditious sequencing - Joan of Arc and Thomas More waited for centuries, but Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (the founder of Opus Dei) was processed in decades.

But the new rules did more than streamline. The endlessly fascinating function of the advocatus diaboli (devil's advocate) was eliminated, a more biographical and historical (as opposed to juridical and adversarial) approach was adopted, and the number of miracles required for the beatification and canonization phases reduced.

In addition, John Paul II personally intervened to contract the time necessary after the death of a potential candidate and the introduction of the cause for sainthood in the case of his friend Mother Teresa, and his successor has done likewise for him.

John Paul's beatification occurred in record time; his canonization is likely to follow a similar trajectory.

Michael Higgins, the past president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, is the author of the CBC Radio Ideas series Stalking the Holy and the book Stalking the Holy: The Pursuit of Saint-Making .

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