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Becoming saint trickier than going to heaven

When someone is declared a saint it ought to be an exhilarating occasion: up above, God singing “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and, down here, the rest of us relieved that one more soul has a seal of approval slapped on it like a stamp on a passport. Odd, then, how often canonization gets mired in undignified distractions.

Two recent papal occasions have resurrected old tensions between Catholics and Jews, and, beyond that, older questions about the canonization process itself.

First was the Oct. 3 beatification of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, former archbishop of Zagreb widely accused of collaboration with the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime in Croatia. The fact that Stepinac eventually repudiated the Ustasha atrocities and saved many Jews, Gypsies and others from extermination has not blunted the controversy.

After World War II, Blessed Stepinac was convicted of collaboration with the Nazis, spent years in prison, then further years under house arrest until his death in 1960. Presumably a personally holy man and a man of staunch convictions, he seems nevertheless a quaint choice for sainthood seeing (a) how relatively few saints are declared and (b) what unusual scrapes this particular candidate got himself into.

Next, on Oct. 11, at St. Peter’s in Rome, came the canonization of Edith Stein (Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), (see Open letter to John Paul: Speak the whole truth about Christians and the Holocaust). A Jewish woman from Poland who first became an atheist and then a Catholic and finally a nun, Stein’s is a great human drama. But, again, controversy is in the air. The pope canonized her for her martyrdom as a Catholic nun at Auschwitz, Poland, but many Jews insist she was killed because she was Jewish.

With all this canonizing in the air (not forgetting the upcoming beatification of Mother Theodore Guerin, founder of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Oct. 25), readers have been phoning in asking how saints are made. The question becomes a conundrum.

Official saints have to be dead, for example. And renowned for holiness. And they have to work miracles. Just for starters. But even this demanding formula fits a lot of candidates. Who goes forward -- that’s the conundrum.

Jesus made it clear enough that his authentic followers would be signs of contradiction. On the other hand, if ever there ought to be an occasion for healing in the battered old world, elevating saints for admiration and imitation ought to be part of it. Instead, a political aura seems to hover over all decisions pertaining to official sainthood. Pope John XXIII, for example, seemed on the fast track, at least until John Paul II took over -- this may not be true, of course, but the byzantine and secretive process lends itself to such speculation.

There are other intangibles of personality, politics and the rest. One kind of pope is more likely to canonize a certain kind of saint who might never catch the fancy of another pope. In a speech not long ago, John Paul II dropped the word martyr from a prepared speech on the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. While saints started out as popular favorites, the recent history of sainthood seems to reflect more subtle political calculations.

Popes, of course, are entitled to have their favorites. But if saints are designed for the edification and encouragement of the rest of us, perhaps we should have more say about who is and who isn’t sainted -- as we had in days of yore.

An article in the Oct. 9 issue on the Justice for Priests and Deacons Program, which aims to help people with canon law problems who are concerned that they cannot be adequately represented by diocesan canon lawyers, got the attention of readers. The phone number for further inquiries is (619) 280-7500.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998