In canonizations, focus on lives of the saints

While thousands gather to watch the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica on April 27, in the pomp and circumstance that follows any canonization, it sometimes is easy to lose sight of the theological significance of the Church’s declaration of sainthood.

The term “canonization” implies something paradoxical about the saints. This becomes apparent when one considers the meaning of the word “canon,” which is employed broadly in the life of the Church. For example, the term is used when describing the Bible (the canon of Scripture), ecclesiastical law (canon law) and the teachings of the Church councils (canons and decrees). Interestingly, it is also applied to the saints.

The word “canon” is derived from the Greek term kanon, which means, “measuring rod.” Broadly speaking, a canon is a rule or law that establishes a principle or standard by which other things can be measured or judged. When Catholic theologians speak about things that are “canonical,” they are usually discussing teachings that are normative for Christian life. Canonical teachings function as standards (measuring rods) on the Christian path.

The ultimate example

However, the heart of Catholic canonicity is not an external set of rules or series of regulations, important as these are, but rather a person in whom the rules, regulations and books are grounded and through whom they find their meaning. This person is the God-man Jesus Christ, the principle through which all things were fashioned, and the standard by which all things will be judged. It is not without reason that the early Church spoke about Jesus as the word of God made flesh, as the divine Logos. Jesus is the measuring rod.

As the visible image of the invisible God, Jesus reveals a way of life because he is the author of life. He is the template, if you will, by which we were created. When teaching his followers the meaning of discipleship (i.e., the discipline of the Christian life), Jesus repeatedly used a simple phrase that was breathtaking in its implications. He said, “Follow me.”

We might say therefore that the entire Christian life is nothing more than a call to canonicity, a call to conform ourselves to the rule of Christ as it is expressed in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church. The Gospel of John elegantly captures this point when it begins by echoing the creation of the world in Genesis. It is not until we are conformed to Jesus that we achieve the fullness of our humanity, because it is in the image and likeness of God that we were created in the beginning. Pope John Paul II stressed this point when he reminded us that Jesus Christ reveals humanity to itself. For his part, the late pontiff was simply echoing the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

Role models

What has this to do with the saints?

When Catholics talk about those who have been officially canonized by the Church, they are suggesting much more than the fact that an individual has made it into heaven. In fact, this is not what canonization means at all. The decree that an individual enjoys the beatific vision of God in heaven is part of the beatification process, not the canonization process. Canonization means something more profound.

When the Church declares someone a saint, it declares that an individual is worthy of universal veneration, which is just another way of saying that his or her life represents a model worthy of imitation by the entire Church. As theologian Lawrence Cunningham explains in his book, “The Catholic Faith: An Introduction” (Paulist Press, $11.95), the saints are those who have so fully conformed their lives to the norms of the Gospel that their lives in turn represent a norm against which we can all measure our own response to God. In other words, the saints are those who have so perfectly followed Jesus that they have become universal models of imitation. The paradox of canonization is that the saints are not the exception to the rule for Catholics. They are the rule. They are the norm. That’s because all people are called to be saints.

‘Be a saint’

When the saints are understood as human beings whose lives represent the norm rather than the exception to the rule, they can no longer be viewed from a safe distance. Cunningham rightly explains that when Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa is understood as the model (i.e., canonized) response to the Gospel, they become a challenge to our own complacency; they remind us that the Gospel is not an impossible ideal reserved for the select few, but rather a real and attainable standard to which we are all called and by which we will all be judged.

Perhaps that’s why we prefer to keep the saints at a safe distance. As we begin to measure our own lives against the response of those most illustrious of our brothers and sisters in Christ, their profound witness to holiness can quickly become a cause for unease. It is easy to imagine St. Francis of Assisi as an otherworldly mystic who talked to the birds. In this way he is disarmed, and the challenge he represents is easily dismissed.

This is not to suggest that the saints should become a cause for anxiety. The saints are a cause for joy. As witnesses to the Gospel, they reassure us that holiness is available to all, even the most hardened sinners. Cunningham emphasizes this point when he notes that the diversity of the saints reveals what it means to call the Church “Catholic.” A quick glance at the list of those who have been canonized reveals men, women and even children from around the world, from every walk of life and from every time, place and culture in Christian history. If the saints teach us anything, they teach us that the relationship between God and humans is never short on creativity.

But the saints also teach us that this creativity is a “measuring rod” against which we may judge our own complacency when responding to the Gospel. When we begin to realize that there are countless ways to respond to the Gospel, we realize how little excuse there is for our own tepid response. When a young Thomas Merton was asked by his good friend Robert Lax what he wanted to be, he responded halfheartedly, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.” Lax rejected the answer. “What you should say,” he told Merton, “is that you want to be a saint.”

He may as well have been speaking to us all.

Michael F. Lombardo is an assistant professor of Theology at Anna Maria College in Massachusetts.

Becoming a Saint
Step 1