David Gibson has a nice piece in the NYT Week in Review today on the Vatican’s new determination to make just about every recent pope a saint. As he notes, a bunch of early popes are saints, mostly by virtue of their having been martyred. But the canonization of Pius X (by Pius XII in 1954) was the first in 400 years–and it really hasn’t worked out that well. (Cf. the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X.) Now there are processes under way for Pius XII, John XIII, Paul VI, John Paul II–and even a movement to do the same for John Paul I, who occupied the See of Peter for a total of 33 days. Over at Politics Daily, David rehearses the problems in current Jewish-Catholic relations that the first of these has helped create.
This development can be seen as part of a (very drawn-out) process by which the papacy has extended its power over sainthood, which represents a standing threat to the ability of the church to control access to the supernatural. Through the first millennium, saints were declared by popular acclaim, their cults celebrated because ordinary Christians found a holy man or woman to be a worthy intercessor with God. But by the 12th century, the popes had achieved a sufficient grip on spiritual power in the West to put an end to such promiscuous beatifications, and established their own canonical control over the making (and unmaking) of saints.
Now that we’re in the third millennium, they have taken the next step, from controlling the process to turning themselves into the modern saints par excellence. Medieval Catholics would have considered this ridiculous. In the 11th century, St. Peter Damian, a monk and cardinal whom Dante places in one of the highest circles of Paradise, famously referred to his friend and rival Hildebrand (who became Gregory VII) as “my holy Satan”–alluding to the sin of pride that was the cause of Satan’s fall. An old friend of mine, a medievalist and former monk, once applied the phrase to John Paul II.
Being head of the Roman Catholic Church didn’t use to turn you into a saint, but then the pope didn’t use to be the most famous Christian in the world and a visible performer on the international stage. Never in history has the Vatican wielded more authority over its far-flung dominions. Celebrity is a powerful thing.