Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

New Papal Saints Widened the Saintly Pool

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

New Papal Saints Widened the Saintly Pool

Article excerpt

On April 27, two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, will join the ranks of formally canonized saints of the Catholic church. In doing so, they will bring the number of popes who have been officially recognized as saints to 80 (out of some 263 popes who have been in office, according to traditional lists).

At first glance, this seems like a very high number, but it's worth remembering that the vast majority of these individuals date from the earliest centuries of the church. The first 35 bishops of Rome are all regarded as saints, as are 52 out of the first 54. In the case of many of these early popes, little historically reliable information is available for their lives. (How many have heard of the second-century pope Telesphorus, for instance? Or his successor, Hyginus?)

What is clear is that many of these early popes lived in an age of martyrs, and their sainthood was closely associated with their martyrdom. Also, for much of the first millennium of the church's history canonizations were not made by popes. Rather, saints were recognized by popular acclamation at a local level and (when things ran smoothly) under the supervision of the local bishop.

The first evidence we have for a pope canonizing an individual dates from as late as 993. By 1234, Pope Gregory IX had declared that no person could legitimately be canonized without the authority of the pope. Over time, there evolved a complex legal process of assessing the merits of candidates for sainthood, the requirement of a set number of miracles (up to four at one stage), and an intense scrutiny of the person's life. This scrutiny was carried out by an official called the "promoter of the faith" (better known as the "devil's advocate"), and it was up to those championing an individual's cause to prove that their candidate was not a charlatan or a scoundrel.

One might have expected that in the wake of an age of increasing papal centralization of power, many more papal canonizations would follow -especially since a curious document from 1075 purportedly compiled by Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) rather audaciously declared that every pope, legitimately ordained, is made a saint through the merits of St. Peter. But this has not been the case. The irony is that since Gregory VII's pontificate, there have been only four: Gregory VII himself (canonized in 1606), Celestine V (canonized in 1313), Pius V (canonized in 1712), and Pius X (canonized in 1954). This makes the double canonization of John XXIII and John Paul n quite a rare event.

But what does it mean to be declared a saint in any case? Undoubtedly, models of sainthood have evolved and developed over the centuries. In the New Testament, Paul uses the term hagios ("holy one") quite liberally to refer to the members of the Christian community at large who are "called to be saints" (Romans 1:7). The earliest veneration of saints centered on the tombs of martyrs over which the Eucharist was celebrated. The bones and other remains became important relics that possessed miraculous properties owing to their merits.

By the fourth century when the Roman Empire's persecution of Christians ceased, opportunities for martyrdom evaporated and new forms of imitating Christ began to emerge. Individuals such as St. Antony of the Desert renounced everything and fled to remote regions to pursue lives of asceticism (literally "training" or "discipline"), which involved long hours of prayer, penance and fasting. They came to be regarded as "daily martyrs." A fourth-century biography of Antony by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was hugely influential in creating an enduring model of sanctity Other works followed, such as Sulpicius Severas' Life of Martin of Tours, which became a "best-seller" in the West.

The ideal of asceticism would continue to play a major role in many of the lives of saints up to the modern period (for example, Sts. John Vianney and Padre Pio of Pietrelcina). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.