News came this past week that Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors. Some Vatican wags noted that, in doing so, the Holy Father offers something to everyone in the Church, advancing the cause of both John Paul II, a pope beloved of conservative Catholics, and that of Pope John XXIII, an icon of the Church’s liberals. Even giving Francis credit for the balancing act, it’s probably not useful to view either of his predecessors through the lenses of conservative and liberal. They’re rightly saints because they gave the Church what she needed at the time.
Saints are people whom you and I have known, because everyone in heaven is a saint. Most saints aren’t canonized. The word "canon" means rule or standard, so a canonized saint is someone whose name will be invoked by the entire Church at the altar.
There are two qualities that the Church looks for in canonizing saints. The first is personal holiness. Not unlike what you and I have seen in the folk we’ve known. The sanctity is simply raised in degree. The second quality is example to others. Every saint reflects something of the Christ, but canonized saints are held up as examples for the entire Church to imitate. Our grandparents aren’t canonized saints either because their holiness didn’t rise to the level of the heroic or because they will never be known well enough to be examples for the universal Church.
One can be holy, well known, and still not be an apt candidate for canonization. Consider the case of Queen Isabella of Spain (1451-1504). Virtually every testimony that we have records the truly heroic sanctity of the woman who united the kingdoms of the Spanish peninsula and sent Columbus to America. The problem is that under this devoutly Catholic monarch Jews and Muslims were either forced to convert to Catholicism or were expelled from Spain. Sainted woman that she was, Isabella will probably never be canonized, because even the Catholic Church, as bad as it is with modern media, understands that advancing her canonization sends the wrong message.
To a certain extent, so does Popes canonizing their predecessors. At this point in our history, there’s no way around it. In the early centuries, canonization was more spontaneous. Now the process has come under centralized control, and that means that Popes must weigh in, even when the saint in question is a predecessor. But shouldn’t the Catholic Church be a little embarrassed to have Popes canonizing Popes? To the Church’s critics, it’s not all that far from Michael Scott — on the NBC sitcom The Office — conferring on himself his own in-house award, a "Dundee for Best Boss," as his left Dunder-Mifflin. Every baptized Christian is called to serve the Church and the world Christ loved. However holy a pope might be, it’s a rather rarified example of sanctity for the rest of us to follow.
The scriptures offer a broader path. Moses tells the people that knowing how to serve and to love God is not difficult.
This command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out." (Dt 30: 1-14).
Need a schema for sainthood? Follow your heart in prayer, and you’ll know how to serve. If a picture helps, Jesus drew it. The Good Samaritan loves others because they are human, not because they deserve love or can return love.
Our popes have loved the poor, but the Petrine Office isn’t much of an illustration of how to do that in our own lives. The Good Samaritan to imitate is Dorothy Day, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Like any saint, her holiness tugs at the Church, raises it up. She certainly redeems the twentieth century. Dorothy was there at its beginning, marching with women suffragettes in Woodrow Wilson’s Washington. And she was still marching in the 1970s, in support of Cesar Chavez and migrant workers, or against the war in Vietnam.
Dorothy came from a poor family, and she grew up in cities, where poverty couldn’t be hidden. Like most people who loved suffering humanity at the beginning of the last century, she initially saw Communism as our best hope. Unlike most people who became communists and socialists, she had the good sense not to place too much trust in any government or institution.
The Christianity of her childhood quickly dissipated in adulthood, because Dorothy never met Christians whose faith committed them to love of the poor. In fact, as a student, she didn’t meet compelling Christians of any kind, so she entered adulthood thinking the existence of God was simply irrelevant. Dorothy loved humanity before she fell for Jesus.
Even prior to joining the Church, Dorothy knew what it meant to be a Good Samaritan. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she recalls serving a thirty day sentence for protesting the rights of women. The women arrested were subjected to strip searches and forced feedings. Dorothy was terrified. In her cell, she felt utterly alone. She writes:
I lost all feeling of my own identity. I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free again after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. The mother who had murdered her child, the drug addict --- who were the mad and who the sane? Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if it were successful, they met with praise, not blame. Why were come caught, not others? Why were some termed criminals and others good businessmen? What was right and wrong. What was good and evil? I lay in utter confusion and misery (78).
Even before she gave her life to Jesus, the "Man of Sorrows," Dorothy could link her own suffering to that of others. And that’s the secret of the Good Samaritan, one looks upon others with empathy, knowing that all of us suffer and that God created us to comfort each other. There’s something else a Good Samaritan, a saint, knows. Christ taught as much in his cross and resurrection: the only way to heal ourselves is resolutely to set about healing the world.
Deuteronomy 30: 10-14 Colossians 1: 15-20 Luke 10: 25-37