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Saints as Popular Heroes

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 19, 2008

During the first thousand years of Church history, saints were declared more or less by popular acclaim. Holy souls developed a reputation for sanctity in this life, people began to pray to them after their deaths, and as favors and miracles were attributed to their intercession, their cults grew. Bishops had the authority to provide official public recognition and to recommend their veneration in the local churches under their authority. All this was fine, but abuses naturally occurred. The formal process of canonization culminating in Rome was developed to impose a degree of quality control on the cult of the saints, to provide a more certain means for the Church to determine which feasts should be universally celebrated, and to help determine which holy persons should be recommended for imitation or instruction.

But multiple purposes can be at work even in the official process. Groups advocating the holiness of this or that founder or member often work very hard to convince the Church that he or she should be beatified or canonized, which in turn redounds to the glory of the group. There is necessarily a certain amount of politics involved, and it is inescapable that souls with strong organizations behind them have a better chance of being canonized. In partial recognition of this fact, some popes have tried to use the process specifically to elevate representatives from ethnic groups, cultures, countries, and states in life which they have felt were under-represented. In doing so, they have sought to stimulate holiness by providing highly relevant models for as many people as possible.

John Paul II was a particular proponent of this latter school of thought, and the number of persons raised to the altars during his pontificate was very high. To some degree, then, appropriate candidates have been sought out by Church authority, instead of the Church waiting until those with a high reputation for holiness “bubbled up” from below. In this light, a new instruction (Sanctorum Mater) on the process of canonization from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is extremely interesting. It seeks to place the emphasis on persons who already have a reputation for holiness, as recognized by the veneration of a significant number of people.

In other words, the new document indicates that the cult of the person in question should already have begun spontaneously before his or her cause is formally introduced. In commenting on the new instruction, the Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, stressed that a cause should not begin unless the candidate is already “held to be a saint or a martyr by a considerable number of faithful.” He also noted that some dioceses were not exercising sufficient care before introducing causes in Rome, and that some had the mistaken impression that “traditional methodology” has been supplanted “by some kind of historical-critical investigation.” There has also been speculation that Benedict XVI would like to reduce the numbers who are being beatified and canonized, lest sheer numbers cause a dilution of the salutary cult of the saints.

I believe that this renewed emphasis on the role of popular piety in determining who is canonized is a positive step. Traditionally, saints have not become significant to the spiritual life so much as a result of an official proactive process as because they have captured the love, admiration and imagination of the people. The Church’s effort at quality control is essential, but it should not obscure or render unnecessary the felt impact of a holy life on those with whom the saint lived and worked. While all those in heaven are saints, the concept of canonization works best for the welfare of the Church when the saints are not just technical models, but the beloved heroes of those who pray.

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