In a meeting with priests, Pope Francis announced that he would canonize Pope Paul VI later this year, and that he and emeritus Pope Benedict XVI are on the “waiting list” to become saints.
“There are two recent bishops of Rome who are already saints,” the pope said to a group of priests in Rome last Thursday, in a text released by the Vatican over the weekend. “Paul VI will be a saint this year. One with his cause for beatification in progress—John Paul I—his cause is open. And Benedict and I are on the waiting list. Pray for us!”
Although the pontiff was almost certainly speaking tongue in cheek, his words touched on a sensitive topic among Catholics, many of whom believe that a moratorium is needed on raising popes to “the glory of the altars.”
The recent canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, as well as the beatification of Paul VI—and apparently his forthcoming canonization—have seemed to rekindle debate on whether declaring popes saints is a good idea.
The recent spate of pope-saints is somewhat of an anomaly, at least since Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire. In the early Church it was quite common for popes to be acclaimed as saints, notably because so many of them were martyrs. Though it is impossible to know precisely how many, it seems certain that at least two dozen popes would have been martyred prior to the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 AD. The first 35 popes are all recognized as saints, and of the first 54 popes, 52 are so venerated.
As the Church moved beyond an era of overt persecution, however, the practice of acclaiming popes as saints slowed and then came to a virtual halt. Only 6 of the 81 popes now recognized as saints were canonized in the entire second millennium. When Pius XII canonized his predecessor Pius X in 1954, he was the first to canonize a pope in nearly 250 years, ever since in 1712 Pope Clement XI sainted another Pius, the Dominican Pius V, famous for excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I and for his promotion of the rosary prayer.
In recent decades, however, things have changed. The Catholic Church has canonized more popes as saints from the 20th century than from any era in Christian history since the 800s. Now, with another 20th-century pope being “venerable” (Pius XII), and John Paul I being a “servant of God,” a full two thirds of all the popes who reigned in the 20th century are either saints or are on their way to becoming one. This has not occurred since the 5th century, when 12 out of 13 popes were raised to the honors of the altar.
As some have pointed out, this either means that the 20th century produced the most extraordinary lineup of holy popes in more than a millennium, or we have become overly eager to canonize the men who serve as shepherds to the universal Church.
Critics of this new trend have not been wanting, with some going so far as to call for a “moratorium” on pope-saints. They bring up a number of objections, such as the difficulty of separating a pope from his administration, confusion of a specific role in the church with personal holiness, and the ever-present accusation of clericalism.
Saint John Paul II made a concerted effort to offer the faithful a number of saints from different walks of life, hoping in this way to better exemplify the universal call to holiness. The Church has wished to point out that everyone is called to sainthood, not just those in a Roman collar or religious habit.
Canonizing popes, some suggest, may work against this design, feeding the perception that priesthood and religious life—especially as one climbs higher up the food chain—are the fastest way to sainthood. By this logic, a good ecclesiastical career would indicate holiness—a doubtful hypothesis.
While Saint Paul received to the whole community of Christian believers as “the saints,” that term has come to more commonly refer to the saints in heaven.
For the moment, as least, this rules out Pope Francis and emeritus Pope Benedict for the simple reason that they are still living.
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