Canonization has been in the news lately. The Catholic Church has proclaimed two of its recent popes as officially “saints.” To be given that status means at least three things: 1. This person can be prayed to as an “intercessor” for you with God. Like having a friend in the mayor’s office, or the governor’s office, or the White House! 2. This person can be held up as a role model for Christian life within the Catholic Church. 3. This person is certified by the Church as truly being “in heaven,” no question about that. Canonization is not supposed to be a kind of “lifetime achievement award,” like they give in certain enterprises for exceptional performance in a particular field over a lifetime. Canonization is rather supposed to involve heroic virtue, even martyrdom and certainly overcoming great obstacles in the name of the faith. Now in this latest canonization of the two popes there is more of this flavor of a lifetime achievement award, even a kind of ideological slant to this whole thing. One pope, John XXIII, is credited with waking the Church up from its Post-Tridentine slumber, while the other pope, John Paul II, is generally seen as one who put the brakes on a Church that seemed to conservatives changing too fast and too much. JP II, or now Saint John Paul II, is the icon of ecclesial steadfastness and doctrinal fixity and hierarchical privilege. In canonizing these two men the official church has “thrown a bone” to both sides of the church: the conservative and the liberal. But in my opinion this was a mistake.
Let me put it this way: I was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, educated in Catholic schools, trained in theology in a Catholic seminary, immersed in Catholic monastic tradition, but I am in profound disagreement with this whole canonization thing, not just this latest manifestation. Actually if this process had any merit, the Church would be canonizing some of the people I listed in the title above, but I doubt if any of these will make it! (Actually there are several thousand in this strange “Investigative Stage”—some for a century or more with no results, while these two were canonized almost “immediately.”) No matter, but let me first go over some general ground about this canonization process and “official saints.” First of all, there is this whole thing of “intercessors”—and what does that mean? Think about it. Why do you need intercessors before God? That very notion seems to make the Reality of God far removed, so separate from you, so distant that you need this “bridge” to reach God. That is actually so wrong. There is no “distance” between you and God. There is nothing and no one more intimate to you than God. In fact, it could easily be said that any saint is more “distant” from you than the Reality of God. To focus on “intercessors” is to make the Reality of God somehow far in some way, whether it’s stated explicitly like that or not. Listen to Catholic prayers, go into a Catholic church, and you will witness this insistent evocation of “intercession.” Very odd really. I know, the Church will quote Tradition and Biblical texts to show the validity of turning to intercessors(actually in the scriptural language of the Semitic-Hellenic world “go-betweens” were always an essential part of social life so that even the reality of Jesus is presented as a kind of “intercession” for us with the Father—Abhishiktananda often pointed this out as something of a handicap when it came to presenting Christian experience to India), but I suspect all this rationalization is there because the truly mystical experience of the Reality of God is simply NOT emphasized or taught by the Church as an everyday experience of every man, woman and child in the world. This may seem like overstating the case, but having intercessors serves the institutional Church more than saying that everyone has immediate relationality to God without any separation. It serves the institution to have someone there between you and God. It is also framing both theology and spirituality, both the notion of God and the notion of Church within a kind of “monarchical” imagery. The “monarch” is so far “up” and “beyond” that you need these various mediators.
Let’s approach the above topic from another direction. Do you know why Islam spread like wildfire a thousand years ago and even today it is still the fastest growing religion? History books will tell you that a thousand years ago the Arabs were the best and fiercest warriors and Islam advanced on this wave of war. There is a certain truth to that but this doesn’t explain the extreme attraction of Islam in this world so structured on “go-betweens” and status. The fact is that Islam was so simple and so direct. It taught that there is no one and nothing between you and God, no matter who you are. There is no priest, no institution between you and God. This was and still is an extremely simple and attractive message, and when lived out authentically, very beautiful and profound. So the notion of “intercession” is downplayed in Islam and in Christian mysticism also simply because it is the immediate Presence of God which is what is sought.
Now there is an aspect of all this that requires more nuance. That is the notion of “praying for someone.” This makes it seem like you are some kind of intercessor, as if God needed some persuading to be benevolent to someone in need, etc. Even at its crudest level this is, I am afraid, all too common in both pop religiosity and also among priests and religious. How often I have heard the expression and the call “to storm heaven’s gates” with our prayers for this or that cause. Petitionary prayer does have a true validity and a real role in our lives, but not in this sense that God is “far off,” “far away,” “needing persuasion,” needing a kind of nudge to act on someone’s behalf, but rather petitionary prayer at its essence is simply our desire to participate in God’s Love for that person, in God’s Care for that situation. It allows us to participate in that Love in a very mysterious and intimate way. Petitionary prayer is also simply another aspect of all prayer in that it is primarily for the benefit of the one praying in that it turns the mind and heart of that person toward the ever-present Reality of God.
Now the next thing to discuss is this thing of saints as “role models.” This is not nearly as problematic as this “intercessor” thing, but it does present some important issues to clarify. The notion of “role model,” the notion that we can learn from another person’s life is of course perfectly true. This is especially true in the pursuit of holiness, in the journey toward a real knowledge of God. A spiritual father or a guru plays this kind of role for some people. But here you have a living guidance given to meet a particular condition and situation of the person. Remember that holiness is always a very personal, very unique and individual manifestation. That’s why in fact no two saints seem alike! They always reflect the conditions of their time, their place, their situation. And that’s why it is either superficial or hazardous to “imitate” saints because how God is manifest in your life and being may not at all be what the case was for your favorite saint. Now one can draw a kind of inspiration from such a person and apply that to your own life, but as “role models,” well, that has a very limited applicability.
But there is another more troublesome side to this “role model” thing. So the Church presents her official saints as some kind of role models for the faithful. At first glance there seems to be an enormous variety of lifestyles and conditions and expressions of holiness. But that is not quite the case. Almost all of these “official saints” are either priests or religious. Lay people are almost totally absent! There are a few exceptions, but they are outnumbered a 100 to 1! Is the Church saying that you cannot attain this kind of sanctity if you are a layperson? Interesting….exactly what are they saying? Furthermore, there is generally a certain ideological slant to the person chosen to be “certified” as a saint. It is almost never a person who has “rocked the church boat” as it were, or someone who has some “blemish” on their record. As if the “Good Thief” nailed to the cross next to Jesus or Peter in his utter betrayal could not be considered as candidates for sainthood in this kind of atmosphere. Or consider the great Desert Father, Abba Moses, who had been a robber and had committed murder as a young man but who became one of the holiest figures of primordial Christian monasticism. But consider some of the names I have in the title: Thomas Merton for example. Why not hold him up as a true role model, not only for monks, but for everyone who seeks a contemplative life and deep prayer. But he may have “rocked the proverbial boat” a bit too much, not sticking to writing pious tracts like early in his monastic life. Later in his monastic life he began writing against the policies of the U.S. Government! Then again there is not a single theological error in his serious writings that pertain to Church Doctrine and he never flaunted disobedience to the Church, yet here we are, with no one caring to canonize him a saint. Could it also be because he had fathered a child in wedlock as a young man and later on in life he had fallen in love with a woman while living as a monk? Not quite a role model, eh? Some conservatives would say that he lacked “heroic virtue”—whatever they mean by that.
Or consider now the example of Dorothy Day. You would think that she would be a perfect candidate for this kind of status. She was a loyal daughter of the Church, totally dedicated to the poor, and a person of deep piety and revered by thousands. Alas, she also “rocked the boat” in our social order calling for an end to capitalism, the death sentence, and all our wars. She was friend and supporter of many dissidents and “problem people” like the Berrigan Brothers, and so many others who practiced civil disobedience. There was also the matter that she too had a pregnancy before marriage as a young woman, and I am not sure but I think she also had an abortion. About this latter thing she never hid that or excused it. She confessed and begged for God’s Mercy. And I think she was a truly holy person. Or consider Archbishop Romero. A man who came from a truly conservative background, even connected to Opus Dei, but who converted to a deep care for God’s poor ones in his native El Salvador. He spoke out against the death squads that roamed the countryside to silence anyone who spoke up for the poor. These were called “communists” and killed. Romero himself was shot dead while saying Mass. I would say that is a true martyrdom which would normally mean automatic raising to the status of “saint.” Indeed the Vatican formally opened the process of investigation for beatification and eventual canonization but it has been over 30 years since his death and still no result. How much “investigation” does it take? John Paul was dead less than 10 years and he is rushed into canonization. Interesting. You see I think there are political and ideological reasons for why someone gets this “saint” title—it is not always for a “saintly” life. And why someone else is denied this title who actually may merit it and is denied for the same political and ideological reasons. The canonization process has always been a mild mechanism of control and influence for the institutional church.
Or now consider the example of Robert de Nobili and Matteo Ricci, two Jesuits from centuries ago who pioneered a completely different Christian presence in India and China from what was the usual institutional thing. Remarkably enough, in that theological climate of the Post-Tridentine Church, these two men had the foresight, and the insight and the courage to recognize that Christianity had to be expressed in the cultural and intellectual terms of these cultures, not that of Europe. This was centuries before Abhishiktananda! De Nobili was a Jesuit who dressed as a sannyasi and learned both Sanskrit and Tamil. He shaved his head, except for a tuft, became a vegetarian and teetotaller, began wearing sandalwood paste on his forehead, donned saffron robes and clogs, and wore the three-string thread which he said represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity. As a “Teacher of Wisdom” he began his journey through a part of India preaching Christian thought in Vedic terms even as peers in the Church condemned him in the loudest terms. The pope did not condemn him but he was held in suspicion, and his way was shut down after his death to a large extent. Now of course it can be pointed out that he did possibly make some serious mistakes, like in addressing his Christian message only to the Brahmin caste. But the Jesuits then and for centuries had this idea that if you convert the upper classes first, they would transform society in a beneficial way for the poor. This was of course total bunk, but these people really believed in that. So it is not surprising that Indian Catholics today are not altogether enthusiastic about De Nobili because the young Indian theologians are strongly into liberation theology and take a different tack from De Nobili. But he is still someone you can learn from if you are going into another culture and want to “translate” Christianity into other terms. This would also hold true for Ricci. But strangely enough the process of beatification and canonization has been open for both men for centuries! You wonder if there will ever be a Saint Robert de Nobili. No need even to go into the case of Abhishiktananda!! I think that both he and Merton would be totally shocked and disapproving if you had suggested to them that one day they would be called “saints.” I think they would have laughed at such recognition by the official church.
Now to return to this recent canonization. It is very puzzling until you recognize its ideological slant. This does not seem to be the case for John XXIII, but it certainly looks that way for John Paul II. Otherwise it is hard to explain this action. The main problem is that John Paul II appears to be the main pope for “sweeping under the carpet” the child abuse cases when they began to really come out into the open in the 1980s and then exploded in the ‘90s. He had this extremely high theological notion of the institutional church and of the priesthood, so high that he would not tolerate any kind of dissent or of anyone speaking critically of these. He would not tolerate any theological explorations either. In part this was due to his young days in Poland where the Church was under constant attack by the Communist Regime. He never outgrew this. So his papacy was a real mixture of some truly positive and outstanding achievements and also at the same time some truly blind and shameful things. Among them was the infamous episode with the Legionaires of Christ. Their founder was a truly debauched priest who sexually molested both boys and girls and who lived extravagantly. But he was also a staunch “defender of the faith,” of the church, of the pope, and so he was highly favored in the Vatican and with John Paul II. So when reports of his debauched life began to come out into the open, this priest had plenty of defenders in the Vatican and even with JP II. The voices of his victims were not listened to; the voice of this sick man prevailed. There has been a lot written about this in recent years, but the Vatican of course (and Pope Francis) insists that JPII did not really know the real nature of this man. That’s very funny because the Vatican usually does such a thorough job of investigating its “targets.” There was a whole book written about this Legionnaires of Mary mess, but a nice short summary was presented by Maureen Dowd in an Op-ed piece in the New York Times—here is the link to that:
And if you want to get a more complete picture of how horrible this was, please Google “Frontline” “Secrets of the Vatican”—an investigative story on one of PBS’s premier programs. You can either watch the whole program or just read the script. It is an eye-opener!
So why was John Paul II canonized? The man had some very serious flaws and made some major mistakes that were not abstract ideas but caused suffering to many people. The Vatican will of course deny all this and never admit that JPII had any flaws. In fact official church myth never presents the saints in anything but “perfected” pictures. Yes, it may admit that the person had to have some “conversion dynamic” in his/her life but once that took hold they were practically “flawless.” This of course is not true for any so-called saint. Like I mentioned earlier, Peter had this very dark moment of betrayal (and Dante put such people in the very pit of hell—the very worst thing you could ever do is betray someone who depended on you). And then there was the Good Thief, certainly not a paragon of heroic virtue! I would be inclined to actually overlook the mistakes and flaws in JP II if in fact he had that moment of self-knowledge and admission that he HAD made terrible mistakes and begged for God’s forgiveness. And a person who “sins” can not only be forgiven but become an exemplar of real holiness—like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. And because JPII’s mistakes were so public and so defined the lives of so many people, this admission needed to be public, not just in the confessional. It would have been so refreshing to see a pope admitting to mistakes. But alas it didn’t happen. And so inspite of the million people who came to Rome to “endorse” the canonization, I for one join with Maureen Dowd in saying, “A Saint, He Ain’t.”