Br. Paul Byrd, O.P.
Fenwick High School
Central Province, USA
On September 30, 2013, Vatican officials announced that both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014.
This is rather remarkable news, given it has only been fifty years since John XXIII died of stomach cancer in 1963, and a mere nine years since John Paul II died of Parkinson’s disease in 2005 — both relatively short durations when it comes to calculating canonizations in modern times. But then both pontiffs have had a little help when it comes to their causes. Benedict XVI waived the five year waiting period usually required before a new cause is opened, and allowed the investigation into John Paul’s holiness to begin almost immediately. And only just this July, Pope Francis exercised his papal prerogative by approving John XXIII’s canonization, despite the fact that the latter has only one confirmed miracle to his name.
As a result, the beloved father of Vatican II and the acclaimed missionary pope from Poland will be raised to the high honor of sainthood in the lifetime of many of their contemporaries.
By why them, and why now? Indeed, my Protestant mother — who, incidentally, loves Pope Francis — often questions me on why the Church has yet to declare Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint, she who represents for many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, what Christian holiness looks like in action. But contrary to popular sentiment, canonization is not the grand prize of a popularity contest; it’s the outcome of a sometimes lengthy discernment process, which includes investigating the arguments for and against a candidate’s canonization. And just as there are some vocal detractors of Mother Teresa, so too are there for the aforementioned blessed pontiffs.
John XXIII’s cause is sometimes maligned by those who blame him for the effects of the Second Vatican Council of which they personally disapprove. As for John Paul II, critics blame him for overly centralizing Church governance and for mishandling matters related to the sex-abuse scandal that continues to tarnish the Church’s reputation today. At least, these are some of the charges I have heard first hand when talking to others about their causes.
But if there’s one thing that I have learned about canonizations, it’s that, although politics and popularity are both involved in making or breaking sainthood causes, ultimately canonizations are the work of the Holy Spirit. Were it not so, too many or too few people would be canonized, to the detriment of us all.
It is, for example, thanks to the Spirit that, after 844 years, the Church finally officially recognized Hildegard of Bingen’s sanctity, later declaring her a Doctor of the Church on October 7th, 2012. Was St. Hildegard popular with everyone? Not at all. But that’s not the final point.
The point of canonization, as it seems to me, is to hold up as an example someone’s life which rearticulates and recontextualizes the Gospel for a new generation, even if that preaching is married to the saint’s sinful humanity.
The canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II is not, therefore, a second baptism which absolves them of all their imperfections, nor is it a confirmation of every ecclesiastical opinion they held or promoted; rather, it is simply a continuation, through the living memory of the Church, of their personal witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. And in that light, it is something for all to celebrate.
– Br. Byrd is a teacher of English and creative writing at Fenwick High School, Oak Park, IL. He serves also as the Dominican Friars, Central Province USA Promoter of Causes for the Saints.