An Alternative to Canonizing Popes?

  Cambridge, MA. Last night I was reading the International Herald Tribune (how nostalgic!) on a flight back from Germany (University of Paderborn) to Boston. Having missed out of much of the news during my busy week in Paderborn and before that in the “other” Cambridge (UK) for a workshop, I was pleased to see the full coverage given to the decision by Pope Francis to canonize John XXIII as well as John Paul II. Reading the Tribune account (lifted of course from the New York Times), I could see that this is a skillful effort by Francis to reach out more widely to the Catholic community, with both and not just one of these figures. I suppose we all knew that John Paul would be canonized, but the canonization of John seemed until recently a receding horizon, a reality we might, or might not see, in the near future. I would have been happier, I suppose, if he had also decided to canonize both Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. Perhaps later, but for the moment it is good news that Francis will recognize both of these popes together.

Still: I am sure I am not the only reader who also thinks that there is something a little unseemly about popes canonizing preceding popes, particularly recent ones: while recognizing the holiness of one or another pope is of course appropriate, one can only also feel that at the very top of the Church there is just too much of a tangle of faith and piety and ecclesial power and politics, and too much room for mixed messages when popes declare their recent predecessors to be saints. How could we avoid even the appearance of the cult of personality, self-congratulation among leaders raised to leadership by a preceding pope, or the unseemly canonization of some particular view of the Church and issues that are still open to debate? We might make it a rule to wait one hundred years, or perhaps two hundred, before considering the canonization of any pope.


But to change the topic, slightly and just for a moment: how do we recognize saints in a Church that is on mission?

I was impressed by the wisdom regarding ministry and mission found in today’s Gospel (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C), from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus sends out the seventy disciples – presumably ordinary, not particularly well-known men and women – on a mission to surrounding towns and villages. The message to them is also a list of criteria by which to recognize those who speak in the name of Jesus. Here are seven criteria I teased out for my early morning homily today.

First, mission is a matter of vulnerability and a certain helplessness: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (10.3)

Second, what does one do in that dangerous situation? The answer is, Do not protect yourself, just go: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” (10.4)

Third, once the disciple gets to a village, she or he seems required to be in need, dependent on the local people” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.” (10.5-7) The person on mission is not supposed to be self-sufficient, a giver who needs nothing in return; the disciple on mission depends on the hospitality of those she or he meets: she cannot do the work unless the people accept her.

Fourth, what does the representative of Christ say, what is the message? Here at least, repentance and conversion, or even membership in the community of believers, are not the primary matters. The work seems, in this account, rather to be very simple: Offer words of peace, and then, be a healer: “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (10.8-9) The mission is about making people well, and then recognizing the kingdom to be present among these people who have welcomed the disciples: in a sense, the kingdom arrives; in another sense, the disciple is simply pointing out that the kingdom has arrived: no preconditions, no membership requirements beyond hospitality to the stranger: Good News, for free.

Fifth, when things go wrong — there really are wolves, we cannot forget — one is not to stay around, arguing or combating those who do not welcome the disciple: “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.’” (10.10-11) And yet still, the message is the same: “The kingdom of God has come near.” (10.11) Rejection and hostility do not change the message, as if to imagine a community that should hunker down and protect itself behind walls. The mission is for disciples on the move, missionaries who do not settle down by building houses and then fortresses; when things do not work, just keep going.

Sixth, “The seventy returned with joy,” amazed at their power over even demons. In a longer reflection, we might ponder this first mention of demons in the chapter, but for now, it is sufficient to notice the joy with which they return: they are not gloomy, angry, possessed of a pessimistic view of society and the future of the world. They go out, have successes and failures, and come back rejoicing. Does the disciple experience and manifest joy? If there is no joy, one can rightly wonder about the depth of the disciple’s grasp of the mission.

Seventh, to return to the start of the words of Jesus in the tenth chapter of Luke: He is sending them “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” (10.2) That is to say, however skilled the disciples are, they are not replacements for Jesus, authorized speakers for a Lord who will not speak for himself. He himself is coming. The mission is not about them or a prudent replacement for Jesus. Disciples do their work, and get out of the way when Jesus himself shows up.

Risk, humility, vulnerability, words of peace, healing, announcing the advent of the kingdom, mobility, joy, stepping aside that Jesus may be seen and heard directly: this is a handy list of criteria for sanctity in a Church that needs to be on mission. The first miracle for sainthood: the miracle of transparency, preparing the way without being in the way.

That we are never told the names of any of these disciples does not militate against canonizing very well-known and powerful popes or figures whose names are recognized everywhere in the world. But it should remind us that beyond the twelve apostles – six times over – are the anonymous men and women who go to every village, with good news and yet penniless and in need, in order to open up times and spaces when Jesus may appear. We must at least remember that for every leader who is canonized, many more saints live out their holiness precisely in the smallness and anonymity of their mission, to all those small towns and out of the way places where Jesus very much intends to visit.

This is of course a messy process, hardly likely to provide a list of names for honoring. But perhaps such disciples do not need canonization?

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PJ Johnston
5 years 6 months ago
Where transparency is a virtue, lack of transparency should be faulted only with a very careful examination of the circumstances causing it (just as James Martin shows that if joy is a virtue, you need to rule out issues such as clinical depression, personal suffering, illness, poverty, abuse, and so forth before you determine that an unhappy person is therefore non-virtuous). The reason why lionizing transparency can be dangerous is that in most social structures, it is the dominant groups that are unmarked and invisible while stigmatized and powerless groups are perceived as drawing attention to themselves if they do not try to express themselves in terms of dominant groups. In the United States, "white" English is unmarked and African American is marked - someone who speaks using an African American dialect, even absolutely correctly, is often perceived as speaking in an affected manner (at best) or as ignorant and unlearned (at worst). Witness the Zimmerman trial if you have any doubt about this. Maleness is unmarked and femaleness is marked, particularly in the professions - because role expectations for professional roles are built around the presuppositon of maleness, there is a perceived role conflict between professionalism and femaleness which makes a female professional less invisible and transparent than a male professional, generally requiring her to work harder to make the same advances. The same things are true of race, skin color, ability or disability status, being cisgender or transgender, wealth and social class - just a few among the possible list of social binaries. In asking people to be transparent, surely Jesus who came first and foremost to the poor and powerless did not ask the marginalized or stigmatized (who even etymologically are the marked members in any set of social binaries: to have a stigma is to have a wound or stain that is visible for others to see) to try to effect their own invisibility, to erase their own humanity and social existence. Jesus lifted them up and said these people, just as they are, are human and can be listened to without having to be murdered and reborn as someone more acceptable to dominant social groups.
Frank Bergen
5 years 6 months ago
A wait of a century or two before canonizing any pope would be an excellent rule to follow in every instance. What's the rush? It seems not to be devotional considerations but an effort to put the stamp of approval on a pope's view of the church and the papal office. Let's see -- though of course most of us won't be around to see -- what the man's life and work look like in a hundred years before holding him up to the universal church as an exemplar for all future generations. And while we're considering the business of recognizing sanctity, do we really need to formalize that recognition in such a profligate manner as was done by Saint-to-be John Paul II? I might say with Mark Twain "I wouldn't want to be part of any club that would have me", and I hope I have that quote repeated and attributed correctly.
5 years 6 months ago
To the Vatican: Welcome to the Holy Roly Department Store, saints, medals, hymns, rods & whips, 5th floor, fat cardinals and neatly pressed monsignors on the sevent floor, turn right for relics, hairs, thumbnails, old underwear, tunics ripped and sewn, rosaries made of human bone.........Does it ever occur to your Church that it might make the public look twice if you declared some one holy or just plain good if their lives showed the Holy Spirit, or whatever Momo Jombo is in its place, the anger, roar and all, against great evils, a woman like Mary Raftery who ripped the Church apart in dear old Ireland, raising for all to see the living and yes, the dead, of its poor kids cursed with the embrase of its ice cold nuns, brothers, priests, bishops and God knows how many of its servants willing to do anything for Holy Mother Church. Who cares whether this or that Pope was a saint, who in his right mind would be moved a quarter inch to live in the presence of God because someone named so-and-so of the city of such-and-such was found by a committee to be a saint? In Mary Raftery's case, the Church could point to her book, Suffer the Little Children, could point to her years in writing and voice yelling out against the evil of the Church until an Irish Prime Minister made himself man enough to get on his legs and say, "The government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue". I'm surprised that God did not take him by the neck and throw him into the Irish Sea.
Erick Wilberding
5 years 6 months ago
You raise some pressing questions, then cite a Gospel passage and scurry into a sermon/argument that the humble crowd is content in its anonymity. A message of pacification? But, charismatic as he was, PP.JP2 was criticized for his handling (or non-handling) of the Vatican Bank scandal, his personal favoring of the multifaceted (shall we say?) founder of the Legionaries of Christ, his scolding of progressive clergy. The canonization seems early. Sed Roma locuta est....


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