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by Archbishop Edward Nowak


Archbishop Edward Nowak, titular Archbishop of Luni and Secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, answered questions about the great number of beatifications and canonizations in the last twenty years.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano


3 - 4

Publisher & Date

Vatican, 28 November 2001

At the solemn crowning of the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary in St. Peter's Church at Gravesano in Lugano, Switzerland, on 4 March 2001, Archbishop Edward Nowak, titular Archbishop of Luni and Secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints answered questions about the great number of beatifications and canonizations in the last twenty years. The priests and faithful wondered why there should be so many. Here is a translation of their questions and of Archbishop Nowak's answers.

Q: Beatifications and canonizations have become one of the most visible ecclesial phenomena of John Paul II's pontificate. What is the connection of this emphasis on holiness and the work of the new evangelization?

Archbishop Nowak: Before answering this question, I should like to give you precise information. Since the beginning of Pope John Paul's pontificate, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has worked on more than 1,600 beatifications and canonizations, 1,675 in all. The Holy Father has canonized 446 blesseds at 41 ceremonies and beatified 1,229 servants of God at 124 ceremonies.

It should be noted that the beatifications or canonizations were frequently collective, that is, the Holy Father canonized or beatified several individuals or entire groups at the same ceremony, especially in cases of martyrdom, such as the martyrs in China (120), the Vietnamese martyrs (116), the Mexican martyrs (25), the martyrs of the French Revolution (64), who were beatified on 1 October 1995, 13 martyrs of the Byzantine-Greek rite, martyrs of the Union of Rome who were beatified on 6 October 1996, and the Spanish martyrs (233 were beatified by John Paul II, 11 March 2001).

Q: What is the reason for this emphasis on holiness?

Archbishop Nowak: The answer is simple: the Church's mission is meaningless if it does not lead to holiness, which is human life in union with Christ. This union is open to different levels: if in a person it is found to be full and total, also called "heroic", then we are dealing with a saint. The person who obeys God's commandments and the directives of the Gospel can be defined as a "normal" Christian. He too must be saved and obtain eternal life with God, which is, essentially, holiness. This is why Pope John Paul emphasizes holiness as the goal of the mission of the Church. We achieve salvation, as we all know, by striving resolutely to practice the Christian virtues day in and day out, obeying Christ's Gospel and the Church's instructions, receiving the sacraments that are channels of divine grace. The most obvious result of the activity of the Church and of her fidelity to the mission she has received from Christ are precisely the saints and the blessed. They testify to her work, they are the most beautiful fruits of evangelization and of the sacramental ministry. Of course, holiness is a gift of God. It is the Lord who makes saints. The Church has the task of discovering these gifts and of presenting them to the faithful.

This is the perspective that we find in the Pope's recent Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte, which spells out the basic guidelines for the Church in the new millennium. The fundamental point is holiness. The entire activity of the Church is directed to this task and this goal.

Q: John Paul has broken with the tradition of canonizing and beatifying exclusively priests and women religious. What does this extension of holiness to lay people mean?

Archbishop Nowak: In the history of the Church there are and have always been many lay saints. Only think of the martyrs of the early centuries who witnessed to their faith by pouring out their blood. However, it is true that in the previous period there was a tendency to identify holiness with priestly or monastic life. This gave rise to the popular belief that only priests and sisters could become saints; but this is not true! John Paul II has put a strong emphasis on lay people. Indeed, he has even asked us to proceed with the causes of married couples who can set an example of Christian married life. In various dioceses the first steps are being taken to this kind of beatification. The majority of Christians are lay people, and we must be able to offer them examples of Christian life in the world. I am personally inclined to disagree with those who separate the laity, priests and sisters. I wonder where priests and sisters come from if not from our families? Where did you or I come from? From a normal Christian family. Then before becoming priests or sisters, they lived at least their first "20 years" in the family. They were lay people who at a certain point felt they had a religious vocation.

Q: Why is the appearance of these "new saints" and the increase in the number of beatifications and canonizations happening precisely at this moment in history?

Archbishop Nowak: In the context of the new evangelization, the Pope also wants to evangelize by means of the Saints and Blesseds, that is, by means of Christians who lived their faith and the Gospel both heroically and radically. They are "Gospel figures", "true Christians" to whom we should refer for the new evangelization. They are models of Christian life, in the different human conditions that we must incarnate. The saints, furthermore, enable us to see how Christ continues to make himself present to the world, and how his Gospel is extending in time and space. They are valuable examples for the Church: Blesseds and Saints show us the practical ways to holiness. Their lives are lives of witnessing to Christ. Today they are held up to the people of the new evangelization and to the people of our times. The Church presents the riches of the patrimony of their holiness and witness to the new generations and the times to come, and this heritage serves as a contribution to the mission of evangelizing the world. Since they constitute a heritage, the saints are also a programme, that is, they show us what we need to do. They are an example for us to follow of how, or in what way, we should fulfill our commitment to being human and Christian.

Q: What about the category of martyrs? The 20th century has produced more than the sum total of all the others. John Paul II often refers to the fruitfulness of martyrdom. What difference is there between the Christian meaning of martyrdom and the rhetoric of bloodshed present, for example, in revolutionary movements of a more political kind?

Archbishop Nowak: I would like to stress that there is no need to dwell on the assertion that the 20th century has produced more martyrs than all the others. We who live in this age have a better knowledge of the recent martyrs, starting with those of Mexico, of Spain, of the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet "gulags", the missionaries in Latin America, etc. Through the media we have a perfect knowledge of the history of every missionary martyr who is able to be recorded and known. In past centuries however, entire cities, regions and peoples were exterminated for their Christian faith, hence they were Christian martyrs. The problem is that at that time no one had the means to record the facts, and they are therefore forgotten. There were thousands of Roman martyrs, for example. We can safely say that martyrdom has always existed in the Church. Today we can record it "in detail", whereas this was more difficult in the past.

The fruitfulness of martyrdom is a fact which has accompanied this phenomenon from the beginning. Tertullian said: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians". Blood generates new followers. This has always proved to be the case. It is the scandal, absurdity and paradox of Christianity. There is no reasonable explanation! Yet, perhaps there is one, that is, Christ himself, and his "defeat" on the cross that has generated Christianity and millions and millions of Christians in every age.

As regards John Paul II's pontificate, the number of martyrs to be proclaimed Saint or Blessed total 400 Saints who are martyrs and 991 Blesseds who are martyrs.

Q: The suffering of the martyrs also recalls the effort it requires to be Christian. In short, authentic witness is never cheap. Could this mean that it is impossible to be Christian without also being, to a certain extent, a martyr?

Archbishop Nowak: It's true. The devotion to the saints began with martyrdom, with those lives given for Christ. One spoke of "red martyrdom", but also of a "white martyrdom". Christians who live with their difficulties day after day, who continue to do their work, who look after their families, often heroically, are true martyrs and the early Christians already knew this. Let us think of our own families, of our own parents. How many sacrifices they made, how hard they worked! In fact, alongside the category of martyrs there was another category, that of "confessors", those who every day confess their faith in Christ's Name through their lives. The saints are also "martyrs" of their daily duties. Perhaps, at times, it is harder to be a "martyr" in everyday life than to face martyrdom in a single act at the hands of persecutors.

Q: On Sunday, 11 March, the Pope beatified a group of Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. How can you form a clear and balanced opinion of these martyrs when, especially today, the history of the Spanish Civil War is being hotly debated and is a topic marked by ideological options and interests that make objective discussion difficult?

Archbishop Nowak: You are speaking of an ideological debate, of ideologies, whereas in a beatification one deals with a concrete person. In every case, the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, and, before that, the local Church, in other words, the bishop and the faithful, spontaneously recognize, through their sense of faith, the "martyr" and venerate him as a martyr. The bishop seeks to ascertain the presence of the criteria for Christian martyrdom in an actual death or "bloodshed in hatred of the faith" and the "voluntary acceptance of death for the faith". If in analyzing a person's death we become aware that it has been inflicted for religious reasons, and that this person has accepted the call to die for the faith, we know we are dealing precisely with Christian martyrdom. Ideologies such as Nazism or Communism serve as a context of martyrdom, but in the foreground the person stands out with his conduct, and, case by case, it is important that the people among whom the person lived should affirm and recognize his fame as a martyr and then pray to him, obtaining graces. It is not so much ideologies that concern us, as the sense of faith of the People of God, who judge that the person's behaviour was that of a martyr.

Q: Saints' causes progress at different rates in your Congregation. What does this depend on?

Archbishop Nowak: Indeed many causes really do take a long time while others take less. It depends on the general interest of the people near the saint. Padre Pio, for example, is universally recognized and invoked by many, which is why his cause advanced quickly. Miracles, understood as God setting his seal upon these figures, are also required. Other candidates for beatification are less well-known, because they come from distant countries. Still today, we have difficulties communicating with Africa or Asia. In these cases causes can take longer.

Q: Every new blessed or saint is backed by a group of the faithful who have promoted the process of the recognition of their virtues. Is this also a matter of finance?

Archbishop Nowak: A priest is backed by a diocese or a parish. A lay person is backed by an association or a specific context of which he was part. A man or woman religious is backed by the congregation to which he or she belonged. The process usually lasts rather a long time, on average for about 50 years. This requires that interest in the cause endures through time. It is easier for a well-organized structure to be interested in a candidate; it can thus make all the necessary preparations, even over a long period. Naturally this commitment also entails an expense. Those involved in the preparations are doing the work, they are obliged to travel to collect or give testimonies. Then documents have to be translated or printed and, of course, they do not sell like best sellers, so the cost can become quite prohibitive. Experts do not complete their task in an hour but over many years, so they must be guaranteed funding for their research and study.

Q: Those with means can support a cause for beatification more effectively. But what about the others?

Archbishop Nowak: The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has a perfect understanding of this problem. It has created a fund for so-called "poor causes". The funds left over, after a cause is completed, are made available to poorer causes that originate in the poorer countries, like those in Africa, South America or the former Communist countries.

Q: You said that on the average a beatification cause can take 50 years. Why does it take so long?

Archbishop Nowak: Ecclesial tradition has settled on a certain period of time to allow for emotions to settle down. Everyone remembers when Mother Teresa of Calcutta died. Her death gave rise to great emotion. Around the same time, Princess Diana died, also arousing strong feelings. In the case of Mother Teresa, immediately after her death, some people were calling for her beatification, even by acclamation. When emotions are running high, people call for immediate action, but, after a while, the Church can achieve a calm, neutral and detailed evaluation of the person's character, work and life. A certain period always has to elapse before a cause for beatification can be introduced. Today it is five years after the person's death. In the former canonical legislation, 30 years were required, even before beginning to examine a person's heroic virtues.

Q: Some new Saints and Blesseds have a universal quality. Pius IX or John XXIII spring to mind. What is the Pope's role in these special cases?

Archbishop Nowak: Two canonical criteria are required before the competent bishop can initiate a beatification process: the fame of holiness and the fame of signs: holiness and works — "fama sactitatis" and "fama signorum" or "miraculorum".

Public opinion, the faithful, must be convinced that a person is truly holy, and with this conviction they must visit his grave, pray, and receive graces which we call "signs". In such cases people say they have received graces or signs from God, having prayed for the intercession of the person in question. It is the local Ordinary who has the right to determine the fame of holiness and the fame of signs, so it is he who begins the process. The same canonical criteria also apply to Popes. If the people believe that a certain Pope is holy, then the cause can be introduced. Moreover, if there are also graces, then the second condition is fulfilled and it is possible to proceed with the beatification. In the case of John XXIII, the press was full of the news of graces obtained through his intercession. Consequently, the two conditions for his beatification were fulfilled.

In our frequent contacts with the Holy Father, he informs us of certain priorities for our work. When for example he visits a country, he wants to leave it a sign of his presence which can become a model and inspiration of Christian life. The most beautiful sign is a Blessed or a Saint, whose character is familiar to the people of a specific country, because he or she is one of them. The faithful can therefore be inspired by the saint's example: they can pray to him and visit his grave, and there are attestations or signs of his activity. The Pope also gives us pastoral priorities. We have already mentioned that of the laity and married couples.

Q: At the beatification of Pius IX, the Pope said that recognition of holiness did not imply the judgment of a person's "specific historical decisions". But to what extent can the unity of the personality be split? Is there a different yardstick for measuring social ethics and spiritual ethics?

Archbishop Nowak: When we speak of people who have played a role in society — public or political figures — we first examine their spiritual life, their union with Christ and their holiness. The saint is the person who lived his spirituality "heroically"; that is, in the social condition in which the Lord set him. With regard to his political decisions, he made them in accordance with his conscience. If he obeyed his conscience he is fully justified in whatever he did. Let us think of Jesus who died crucified: this implied that he had got everything wrong, he had failed in his mission, his so-called "political decisions" were mistaken. However, political decisions are not so very important. What is important is the union with God of the candidate for the honours of the altar, his inner, spiritual life and the external behaviour that stems from it.

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