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Saints both antidote and example to world


On the last day of April, Pope John Paul II canonized the Polish nun, Faustina Kowalska, the latest of the saints he has made in his 22 years as bishop of Rome.

In the religious equivalent of the Guinness Book of Records, he has declared more saints than any previous pope.

Why does this pope make so many saints, anyway?

John Paul may have at least three reasons: one evangelical, another cultural and, perhaps the most important of all, one that is structural.

He believes in holiness, of course, and declaring new saints is a powerful evangelical tool for him. He understands that sanctity is not some cheap grace, as easily purchased as a spurious sense of mystery by the religionless religion of the New Age. In the latter, a misty spiritual gain is available without any suffering or loss.

The pope is also insisting that, despite the remarkable accord with the Lutheran church on the long dispute about whether we are saved by faith or good works, the Catholicism he intends to hand on still values good works. The process of declaring a saint, therefore, contains a message for ecumenism in general and for Lutheranism in particular: We haven’t really changed, no matter what documents have been signed.

Every time he makes a saint, he also differentiates sacramental Catholicism from the vague beliefs found in political oratory or in the one-size-fits-all worship of plush-seated suburban churches. John Paul the evangelist defines Catholicism anew every time he raises, as the saying goes, a worthy Christian “to the altar,” thereby preaching that, if you want to know what Catholicism means, examine the lives of these men and women. Go and do likewise.

Culturally, canonizing the blessed is one public way in which he can emphasize what hardly anybody even mentions anymore: the pursuit of goodness in living rather than the pursuit of the “good life.”

The search for the “good life” has always shared many characteristics with the fox hunt: wealth and leisure, conspicuous consumption in the great houses, horse-riding lessons and plentiful drink in early-morning stirrup cups that may leave the crimson-coated participant worn out and hung over.

In short, the West, as the pope views it, is in full pursuit of the so-called “good life” and slipping instead into decadence.

Come aside with me, the pope counsels the world, and see how different a truly good life is from this “good life.” Sanctity frees you from its strangling imperatives. True holiness does not seek attention, has no fears about approval by peers, requires no expensive wardrobe and, because it is built on forgetting one’s self, it is inoculated against self-consciousness.

Every time he introduces a new saint, he tells the world in which a blizzard of change falls every day, that nothing important changes at all.

Saints are relevant in a relativistic culture, for they are unshakable pillars that stand through storm and revolution -- both antidote and example for the modern world.

Most significant of all is that the pope, in entering so many people into the catalog of saints, is reading his last will and testament to the cardinals who will select his successor, to the world’s bishops and to the faithful. By making saints, he makes his inheritance clear. He believes in and wants to bolster in every way his conviction that God made the Catholic church hierarchical and he intends to keep it that way.

The saints constitute a level of mediation between ordinary believers and God. People are encouraged to pray to them for favors and blessings. Every such prayer acknowledges that a hierarchical structure exists, that it defines our spiritual geography as step-like with the pope presiding over everyone from the top.

Every time the pope makes a saint, therefore, he is furthering his generation-long program to restore the Catholic church to what he sees as its pre-Vatican II glory. With every new intercessor, he peels back a little more of the Vatican II consciousness of a collegial church in which, although he is first among the bishops, he does not dole out their authority from an imperial height. Collegial bishops, on the other hand, enjoy authority by their ordination and stand on the same plane with him.

The pope, we remember, is a playwright, aware that symbols are more influential than intellectual lessons in moving an audience. Each canonization is a fresh drama telling us about a particular saint but also about him. As we pray to these saints, the pope deftly employs them to reconstitute in Catholic practice the acceptance of traditional hierarchy as the true nature of Catholicism.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin Press.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000