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Too many Italian saints?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 12, 2014

One doesn’t like to grumble. But, really, the Italians seem to have it all over everybody else when it comes to canonizations. Now we have another case in point, as Pope Francis will canonize six new saints in November. It should come as no surprise that two-thirds of them are Italian.

It is true that recent popes have made a sincere effort to widen the net. Accordingly, when two popes were canonized recently, only 50% of them were Italian! I suppose, however, that the other 50% were Italian by adoption, or perhaps by place of residence at death. And we must remember that Pope Paul VI, another Italian, will be beatified this Fall. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that non-Italian popes are (like non-Italian saints) few and far between.

I went on Wikipedia—that inexhaustible source of information about all things good and holy—to test my little theory, looking up Catholic saints by nationality. Wikipedia has pages covering 255 Italian saints. The next closest are the Spanish, at 154. The Germans have 146, the French 138, and the Greeks 108. Then the numbers drop under 100 and, very rapidly, under 25. To be sure, Wikipedia does not even begin to include all those who have been canonized. Nonetheless, I happily accept this as proof of my thesis.

The thing about canonizations is that they depend on a variety of very human and historical factors. There is, of course, the historical fact that Catholicism has been around far longer in some places than in others. There is also the geographical fact that the headquarters of the Church is, except for some critical technicalities, right smack in the middle of Italy. And wherever there are strong religious orders and clerical groups, you have the institutional ingredients for successfully advancing a cause.

It is also certainly possible that Italians care more than others about whether their saints are recognized by the Church. Whatever the case, a significant part of the process is both clerical and political, in that some group generally has to be busy about pressing a candidate forward in a consistent way, and in accordance with the procedures that have been established for this purpose. You get that, for example, for holy priests and religious, but seldom for holy laity.

I want to be very clear about this. There is no doubt that those who have been declared saints really are saints. The conclusion, drawn so carefully through a human process, enjoys Divine approbation through miracles. It is rather the selection for formal canonization from among the much larger group of actual saints that is influenced by historical circumstances and party effort.

In other words, the fact that Italy has more canonized saints does not at all mean that there really are more Italians than any other national group in Heaven. I say this with apologies to my Italian readers, but really I have no quarrel with any of it. Canonization is a delightful and profoundly incarnational mix of the human and the divine. This just means that the whole thing is Catholic to its core.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Defender - Jun. 13, 2014 8:37 AM ET USA

    This reminds me of the old joke about how few of the Jesuits get to heaven compared to other religious orders - Pope Francis must have heard it too, given the number of Jesuits he's made saints.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - Jun. 13, 2014 2:39 AM ET USA

    Let's not complain about how many saints of a particularly nationality there are. There can never be enough saints - we should rejoice for every single one! And quite frankly, there are many, many saints that are never canonized and whose lives and works are known only to God.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jun. 12, 2014 3:01 PM ET USA

    There, there, Dr. Jeff. Try not to lose heart. Everyone knows that the real reason Peter and Paul set the hq in Rome is because the Italians truly are more likely to follow the true way, truth and life, and thereby be the eternal example for the rest of yous. There are even documents uncovered from the ancient site of Cumrano that support Peter and Paul's choice of Rome as the eternal city, and Italians as the eternal best choice for saints. Plug in, Dr. Jeff, plug in why doncha?

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