The trend of canonizing popes

In the fall, Pope Francis will tell the world that Pope Paul VI lived a holy life and now is with God in heaven. In doing that, Francis will be continuing a practice that used to be rare but in recent years has become fairly common — canonizing a pope. The ceremony will take place at the conclusion of an assembly of the Synod of Bishops on young people, which will be held at the Vatican from Oct. 3-28.

Recent flurry

The canonization of Pope Paul, whose pontificate overlapped the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, will bring to 82 the number of popes — out of a total of 266 — whom the Church recognizes as saints.

It also will be the fourth time since 1954 that a pope has been canonized. That was when Pope Pius XII canonized Pius X, pope from 1903-14. Two others have been canonized since then — Pope St. John XXIII (pope from 1958-63) and Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005), whose canonizations occurred in a dual ceremony in 2014.

The Early Centuries
Although seven popes are a lot to be canonized or set on the path to canonization in a relatively brief span of time, that number looks skimpy by comparison with the fact that all 35 of the first popes — and 52 of the first 54 — are honored as saints. This apparently reflects the fact that most of those early popes were martyred for the Faith — laying down one’s life in this way being recognized as a sure path to sainthood. After that, the persecution of the Church slacked off and canonizations slowed down.

In addition, three other popes — Pius IX (1846-78), Pius XII (1939-58) and John Paul I, whose brief pontificate in 1978 lasted only 33 days — are at earlier stages of the process that could lead to declaring them saints. Pius IX, whose 32-year pontificate was the longest in history so far, was declared “Venerable” in 2009, as was John Paul I in 2017. And Pius IX was beatified — declared “Blessed” — in September 2000 in the same ceremony as John XXIII.

Pope Francis announced last February that he would canonize Pope Paul — as well as Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran churchman and champion of the poor who was shot to death by a gunman in 1980.

Speaking to a group of priests, Francis noted the growing number of papal canonizations in recent times and quipped, “Benedict and I are on the waiting list. Pray for us.” (Benedict is Benedict XVI, who resigned as pope because of age and infirmity in 2013 and still lives in the Vatican.)

Before the canonization of Pope Pius X in 1954, the last pope to be canonized — by Pope Clement XI in 1712 — was St. Pius V, whose pontificate extended from 1566-72. Coming to office as the Protestant Reformation was spreading, Pope Pius, a Dominican who wore his religious habit as pope, vigorously implemented the reforming decrees of the Council of Trent. He also is remembered for excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I of England and helping organize the Catholic fleet that on Oct. 7, 1571, defeated a Turkish fleet in the famous battle of Lepanto.

Newest papal saint

Pope Paul’s canonization will take place just weeks after the 50th anniversary of the action for which he is probably best remembered: issuance of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) reaffirming the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control.

Pope Francis has cleared the way for the canonization of Blessed Paul VI, pictured in 1967 before departing for Istanbul. CNS files/courtesy Pan American Airways

There were, however, many other milestones in Paul’s long career of service to the Church, including presiding at the three final sessions of the Second Vatican Council, bringing it to a successful conclusion in 1965.

Giovanni Battista Montini was born Sept. 26, 1897, near the city of Brescia in northern Italy. Following seminary studies, he was ordained in 1920 and soon after went to work in the Vatican Secretariat of State. He remained there for the next three decades, rising to the rank of Substitute (Assistant) Secretary of State and close adviser to Pope Pius XII.

In 1954 Pope Pius named him to head the huge Archdiocese of Milan. Four years later Pope John XXIII raised him to the rank of cardinal. After Pope John died in 1963, the conclave of cardinals chose Cardinal Montini as pope. He took the name Paul VI.

One of his first official actions was to decree that Vatican II — which had been convened by Pope John and whose first session was held the previous fall — would go on. Pope Paul presided at the three sessions that followed, in 1963, 1964 and 1965.

The latter year also saw a visit by the pope to the United Nations, where he famously appealed for “no more war.” In 1967 he published the social encyclical called Populorum Progressio that aligned the Church with the interests and needs of the developing nations.

In July 1968, after weighing the question for several years, Pope Paul published the birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae. To the consternation of people who had looked for — and in some cases labored to bring about — a change, he upheld the teaching that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”

Widespread dissent by theologians and others greeted the encyclical, while the wave of departures from the priesthood and religious life that had begun several years earlier continued. So did other signs of confusion and conflict in the Church. In a homily in 1972, Pope Paul offered a startling explanation for what was going on: “The smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”

Paul soldiered on through another six years of dissent and defections, along with declining health. He suffered a massive heart attack and died on Aug. 6, 1978. Pope Francis beatified him on Oct. 14, 2014. Little more than four years later, he will be declared a saint.


Literally added to the list

Canonization takes its name from the Latin word “canon,” meaning rule and, specifically, an approved list. These days, it is the name for the formal act by which the Church adds someone to the list — the “canon” — of those whom it recognizes as saints.

Although people sometimes speak of canonization as “making saints,” the public recognition that comes with being canonized does not make anyone a saint — only God does that — nor does the Church ever recognize a living person, no matter how holy, in this way. In essence, canonization is neither more nor less than the act by which the Church formally recognizes that a particular person is now in heaven with God — something that holy people who are still alive aspire to but haven’t achieved yet.

The Church doesn’t canonize people as a reward to them but in order to instruct the faithful in what holiness looks like and encourage them to be holy themselves. It is safe to suppose there are millions upon millions more saints in heaven than there are people who are formally recognized as saints on earth, and it is at least possible that — aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary — some of the anonymous saints stand higher in the sight of God than some of those we know by name.

Vatican II, in its Constitution on the Church, made it a point to stress that not only clergy and religious but also laypeople can be saints. “All in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness,” the council said (Lumen Gentium, No. 39).

Canonization over time

The process by which the Church recognizes saints has changed greatly over time. In fact, in the early centuries there was no formal process. Instead, there was simply a general recognition that some particularly holy individual, now deceased, deserved recognition as a saint.

At the start, that meant the martyrs — people who were killed for the Faith. So, for instance, no one ever formally canonized Peter, the leader of the apostles and the first pope, but there is no serious doubt that St. Peter is a saint — indeed, a saint who suffered martyrdom. By the fourth century, however, “confessors” — women and men who testified to the Faith by living exceptionally holy lives — also came to be canonized in this way.

A banner shows new Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII and Jesus during an April 28, 2014, Mass of thanksgiving for the canonizations of the new saints in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. CNS photo/Paul Haring

As time passed, the process increasingly was formalized, with authority to recognize someone as a saint being reserved to the local bishop or, in some cases, the regional primate or patriarch or metropolitan archbishop. But even in these cases, only the pope could approve such local saints for veneration by the universal Church.

The last time anyone was canonized by any authority other than the pope was in 1153, when the archbishop of Rouen, in today’s France, recognized the sainthood of St. Gaultier — an early 11th-century abbot, known also as Walter of Pontoise, who was imprisoned and threatened with death for upholding the reforms of Pope St. Gregory VII, including celibacy by clerics in the Church.

In 1170 Pope Alexander III issued a decree that henceforth only the pope could canonize. Today, many theologians hold that canonization is an exercise of papal infallibility.

In 1588 Pope Sixtus V established a Sacred Congregation of Rites whose responsibilities included conducting the process or “cause” by which saints are recognized. Pope Paul VI — the same who will be canonized in October — divided this body into two congregations, one known as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the other as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

In 1983, Pope St. John Paul II introduced what the latter congregation in its page on the Vatican website calls a “profound reform” of its structure and procedures. The process was greatly simplified and shortened — for example, by reducing the number of miracles required from four to two, one before beatification and one before canonization, and permitting a cause to begin five years after a candidate’s death instead of the previous 50.

John Paul himself was a great saint-maker (to use that misleading expression), having recognized 482 saints and 1,338 blessed during his 26-year pontificate. In several cases, these included large groups of individuals, such as 103 Korean martyrs in 1984, 117 Vietnamese martyrs in 1988 and 120 Chinese martyrs in 2000.

Steps to sainthood

The canonization process now has several stages — Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, Saint — and involves close study of a person’s life and practice of the virtues and of miracles occurring through his or her intercession, which are considered signs from God that the person is deserving of recognition as a saint. Testimony is taken from people who knew the individual. Medical experts are consulted about whether the supposed miracles defy explanation by natural causes.

Teresa of Calcutta

At the death of John Paul II in 2005, there were calls for canonization by acclamation as the cry “santo subito” — declare him a saint now — rose from the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. The Polish pope’s cause nevertheless passed through the usual stages, but it did so with extraordinary speed with his successor, Benedict XVI, waiving the customary five-year wait to begin the cause (a move John Paul himself had employed with the cause of St. Teresa of Calcutta). John Paul II would go on to be canonized only nine years after his death.

Complicating factors

Today opinion is divided on whether the canonization of popes is a good idea or not, with some writers suggesting a moratorium on the practice.

On the positive side, the recent multiplication of papal canonizations calls attention to the fact that during the last century or more the Church has been blessed with holy leaders.


But what about popes who haven’t been canonized — weren’t they good men? What about Pope Benedict XV, the pope of peace in World War I, and Pope Pius XI (see Pages 14-15), a staunch opponent of totalitarianism in the 1930s? And if Benedict XVI and Francis don’t make it — despite being, in Francis’ words, “on the waiting list” — what will that say about them? If declaring some popes saints but not others lends itself to such speculation, wouldn’t it be a good idea to drop the practice?

At the moment, Pope Pius XII is something of a special case. During his lifetime and immediately after his death on Oct. 9, 1958, he was widely revered and regarded as someone of great holiness.

In 1963, however, a play called “The Deputy” by a left-wing German writer named Rolf Hochhuth depicted Pius in a highly unfavorable light, and since then there has been a continuing controversy over whether he did enough to help Jews during World War II, even though Jewish groups lavished praise on him after the war.

Cambridge University historian John Pollard, non-Catholic author of several books on the papacy, calls this controversy “a highly political dispute.” But there is no sign it will end any time soon, and concern that canonizing Pius would be greeted by a chorus of protests appears to have stalled his cause — for now at least — at the “Venerable” stage.

One device sometimes used by the Vatican to head off controversy is “twinning” the canonizations of two diverse persons with support from diverse camps in the Church. This seems to have been the reasoning in 2014, when Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II were canonized in the same ceremony.

John XXIII is held in esteem by Church progressives for having set the wheels in motion for Vatican II, with its program of aggiornamento (“updating”) in the Church. John Paul II is admired by Church conservatives for restoring order when aggiornamento threatened to get out of hand. It isn’t hard to imagine these two saintly popes — along with others, perhaps — having a good laugh together in heaven at the efforts down below to set them in opposition to each other. John Paul himself also “twinned” John XXIII in the year 2000, when he beatified him alongside yet another modern pope, Pius IX.

The holy goal

Explanations of canonization routinely note that it is not a judgment on the success or failure of the policies and projects of the saint but on something quite different: his or her holiness. As even casual examination of many saints’ lives shows, many ended in what would humanly speaking be considered failure and disgrace — and even martyrdom is hardly what the world would rank as success. All of which simply reflects the fact that canonization — of a pope or anybody else — is the product of a diligent effort to see human lives from God’s point of view.

But, someone might ask, what is holiness? Pope John Paul II provided an answer in his 1997 encyclical on moral principles, Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of the Truth”). Writing of the rich young man in the Gospel who asks Jesus what he must do to be perfect, the pope wrote:

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“This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. ... It involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. By responding in faith and following the one who is Incarnate Wisdom, the disciple of Jesus truly becomes a disciple of God” (No. 19).

This presumably describes the holiness of the popes who have been canonized, as it is of all saints — the unknown as well as the recognized.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.