Last Sunday, before going into the Church, I was watching the preparations for the ceremony of canonisation of Popes John 23rd and John-Paul 2nd. As I went into Church I asked the intercessor to remember these two people in our prayers of the faithful, under ‘the faithful departed’ A member of the congregation who overheard this said ‘You are not going to do that, are you?’ Well we had a frank and wide ranging exchange of views there and then, and we did ‘do that’.
But I thought it would be worth while offering some reflections on the process of canonisation and saints and so on to help to understand the process.
The first thing that comes to me is that the picture of Jesus’ humanity that we get in the gospels is pretty sparse. To be sure, there is ‘everything necessary for salvation’ ass the ordinal requires the priest to sign up to, but in other respects, there are things about being with Jesus that I would like to have known.
Very soon after the Church got going, people were being killed for being followers of Jesus. It was a dangerous time and others needed encouragement to keep on following. So the martyrs were remembered, as they should, as more concrete and contemporary examples of what it means to be a Christian.
But after people stopped being made martyrs by the government, there were lots of other people who were good ‘witnesses’ to Christ, whom the whole community started to remember. Some of these were local to certain communities, and of not much interest to others. Some achieved ‘world wide’ (read Mediterranean) fame. After a while the Church in Rome, as the central Church of Christianity began to regularise the process of remembering good witnesses to Christ and so the process of ‘canonisation’ began. This process was not a ‘top down’ driven process, but was meant to acknowledge officially, what was already going on among many people, unofficially.
This process is much like the one that gave us the biblical ‘canon’. There were once lots of books floating around in different places that different communities used as ‘Scripture’ for them. After a while, and in the face of some heresies that threatened our access to God in Christ, the number of books that were included in the ‘canon’ was closed, and we have the Bible as we know it today. The difference with saints is that there are always people who are being good witnesses to us of Christ. So ‘saints’ keep getting made.
The question arises though ‘who has the authority to make saints?’ Since the great schism of the 10th century between the Eastern and Western Churches, saints have been made by each community of Church without reference to the other. Since the reformation, when the idea that we are all ‘saints’ has taken hold, and the number of denominations has multiplied greatly there is no desire to make saints ‘officially’ or a central authority to administer it for reformed Churches.
But that does not mean to say that the process does not go on. In the Evangelical Church of Germany, Martin Luther is quoted as much as Paul or Jesus, such that at one conference, a German pastor made a speech, echoing St. Paul in Galatians when he said ‘What? Was Luther crucified for you?’ In parts of the Church Calvin is more quoted than Jesus.
In the UK there are ‘saints’ of the Anglican communion made by their steadfastness in the face of Mary’s return to Catholicism. But we remember St. Thomas More as much for his opposition to Henry and his willingness to die for his faith as we do Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley for their support of Henry and the Reformation.
The problem lies not in the process of ‘making saints’ but in the fracturing of the communities of the Church and so the lack of an authority which can speak for the world wide Church. So the Church of Rome is the only Church, for the West, which claims the authority and which has a formalised process for making saints. But that does not mean that there are not local Roman Catholic saints who are not recognised by Rome, or that there are not Protestant ‘saints’ who are equally not recognised by Rome. Who a saint is, is a function of the Holy Spirit, and the community that recognises them.
The question is ‘are we part of the same community as the Roman Catholic Church? Do we want to recognise the same ‘saints’ as they do? The answer would have to come from below, like all recognition of saints.
For the Polish people, Pope John-Paul 2nd played a major role in their freedom. For the whole Church, he played a major role in opposing communism. He was a very pious person. But at the same time he allowed a certain ‘roll back’ of the achievements of Vatican 11, and had a blindness to the crisis of sexual abuse that is now, after him, being taken more seriously by Rome, and the whole Church. Is he a ‘saint’ for me? Probably not. Is it worth acknowledging his contribution for the good that he did, and is it worth acknowledging and giving thanks for the Roman Catholic Church’s decision about him in order to express our ‘community’ with them? Probably yes!
It is easier for me to assent to the canonisation of Pope John 23rd because of the great debt we all owe to him for calling the Second Vatican Council and opening up the Church because of it. But both of these people have feet of clay. And both of them were probably canonised for ‘Church Political’ reasons. But both of them also mirrored Christ in special ways. That is how it is.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a kind of ‘saint’ for me and some others. He is not much remembered in Germany because of the ambiguity of his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He has feet of clay, but he, like Pope John 23rd represents another way of being a ‘modern’ Christian and we may learn from him too. That the Church of Rome does not recognise him, does not take away anything from what he actually is, and how his life functions in the Church. As my German Pastor friend says ‘It would be a good thing if the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged a few reformers.’ I think that would be great. It would open up the community of ‘us’ to embrace a wider community at the level of ‘functional saints’ and go a long way in helping the unity of Christians. But while the making of saints is tied up with the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to primacy in terms of Church authority (which Anglicans decline), it makes not much difference one way or the other. The power of the saints lives on.