Near Godliness

J. Peter Nixon comes clean on Pope Pius XII, and dotCommonweal enjoys a moderate thread of discussion pro and con. For me it all begs the question: What the heck is a canonized saint? How far do you have to go to be one? How far do you need to go?

Take Peter (not Nixon) for example. Peter had faith, and he had it to a depth that when Jesus probed, he blurted out the line that made him the Rock. But like Pius XII, he missed opportunities in a life otherwise faith-filled, devoted, and no doubt fruitful to those to whom he preached and served.

Peter did have courage to surpass the other apostles: pulling a sword and trailing after the lynch mob late Thursday night. When interrogated by the hand-warmers and the servant girls, he denied Jesus. What would have happened had he confessed Jesus at the fire? Would he have been hustled off to crucifixion with the Lord? Would we have forgotten the thieves on Good Friday if Peter offered some gruff repartee with Jesus? Would Peter have been any less a Rock on which to build the Church had he died at Jesus’ side on Good Friday?

Few people think about it that way, do they?

Poor Pope Pius. He kick-started reform in a timid way. He saved people from the fascists in a quiet way. By all accounts he was a good Catholic man, priest, bishop, and pope. Does that make him worthy of veneration as a saint? If he had publicly come out to support Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, and other targets of Nazi purification, and in doing so called out the princes of fascism, would he have been martyred? Would sites of faith in Italy and elsewhere been targets of military revenge? Would fewer people have been secretly spirited away from the jackboots of Hitler?

A few more people think about that, don’t they?

Getting back to the saint questions …

Do we really need another pope who is a saint? Is there such a driving need for one more example of declared holiness in Rome, or in the clergy? Or can we afford to take our time with this case? Do people who support his cause call on Pius XII in daily life now? If his canonization process paused, would they cease doing so? In other words, does the saint make the process or does the process make the saint? Does Pius XII match up with Denis, 3rd century bishop and martyr, whose feast shares the pope’s day of death? If non-Catholics question the man’s witness, does that sink the process, speed it up, or do neither?

I ask the questions because I don’t have the answers. I don’t think another saint-pope would inspire great faith where great faith needs to be inspired: among lay people, especially the young. “I want to grow up to write theological encyclicals as a pope,” or “I want to lay down my life for another.” Maybe both types of believers should be saints. But if we’re fast-tracking someone for canonization, who do you think would be more inspiring: Thomas Van Derwoude or Eugenio Pacelli?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Commentary, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Near Godliness

  1. Jim McK says:

    Canonized saints are primarily people who are remembered as holy. The “remembering” is as important as the “holy” part, if not more important. The canonization process is an investigation into holiness, to see if the individual is worth remembering, but it also a test of the persistence and devotion of those who wish to promote the cause.

    Popes have an advantaged position since they hold a holy office, and the See of St Peter makes them more noticeable. It is hard to look past the office to the person to see if he is holy, desrving of attention etc. Others do not have such advantages, and are judged by the holiness in their own life and how it inspires others, at leat enough to promote a cause.

    Theffect of canonization is that the inspirational holiness of a person is shared with the whole church. Maximillian Kolbe can be revered by people outside of Poland, Oscar Romero El Salvador, Dorothy Day NYC, rather than simply being remembered in their small places. Here again, the papacy is universal, so this aspect of canonization is distorted.

    So the process is slanted toward Popes, though it is not changed much ofr them. Alomst enything we do will tend toward canonizing popes, making them universal signs of holiness. That needs to be remembered when we look at their canonization, but even more when they are chosen.

    I guess I am jusr shanging the direction of the questions, rather than outright answering them. Not do we need, but did we have another St-Pope. Did he inspire devotion? Does he inspire devotion today? Pius XII is one of those cases where the old 50 year waiting period before starting a cause would probably be beneficial.

  2. Jim McK says:

    my apologies for the typos – a brief distraction and I lost my place.

  3. Katherine says:

    As an historian, I have a somewhat different slant on this.

    It seems to me worth noticing that there are not all that many sainted popes, once you get past the first few dozen (mostly martyrs). After that just now and then, and only 10 out of 168 since AD 800 (and about as many more Blesseds). I think the process actually tends to work against canonizing popes. Some we have very little sense of as individuals, beyond the official records, and so assessing personal holiness would be difficult. Others, especially those who had long and busy or controversial reigns, and/or wrote a great deal, might present so much to assess, or such a conflicted record, as to make successful canonization difficult.

    Also, our modern fascination with popes as people is frankly just that — modern. Before the advent of modern communications, popes were often remote, shadowy figures to most of the Catholic world. So though the office is universal, persistent devotion was less likely to develop around individual popes than other sorts of holy people, who offered more dramatic or more immediate examples of holiness.

    As for modern causes, in one sense, of course the church can afford to take her time. In another, whether the subject is a pope or a laywoman catechist, it’s important to get the legwork done in a timely fashion. The paper trail is important, but one of the key elements of the canonization process, for centuries, is taking testimony from those who knew the person. And that testimony is perishable. If you wait to open a cause for say, fifty years, what you will have is mostly what people chose to write down, either not especially bearing in mind the needs of the canonization process, or deliberately shaping the text to further it. But If you can talk to the witnesses, you can pursue issues and ask probing questions.

    So I would hope that the work on Pius XII keeps going now, even though it may be necessary to wait for the Vatican Archives to be opened to 1958 to finish the job. Whether he is ever beatified, canonized or not, it would at least deal with the modern “Black Legend” about his wartime work.

  4. Liam says:

    Katherine is right to note that the 2d Millennium canonization process for popes is relatively modern.

    And it is in a sense a testament to the evolution of the papacy from 1700-1880. During that time, the papacy shifted from being a power broker in its own right, to being a hapless pawn (starting with Clement XIV’s surrender of the Jesuits to the wishes of the Great Powers to Pius VI & VII being imprisoned by Napoleon) to the end of even its own temporal rule under Pius IX.

    From the time of Napoleon onward, one sees the revived sense of pope as holy man – though it remained a minority dimension probably until Pius IX became “a prisoner of the Vatican”. Then more and more you see an emphasis on personal sanctity that had not been emphasized before.

    It’s one of the consequences of the shift away from temporal power.

  5. Deacon Eric says:

    I am somewhat concerned that the canonization of popes in modern times has become a privilege of the office; it almost seems as though one assumes a modern pope will be canonized unless dramatic circumstances arise.

    This is dangerous. Three is nothing wrong with saying that any given modern pope was a holy and dedicated person; that does not mean they must be canonized. This perceived entitlement to canonization then results in ridiculously transparent political moves, such as yoking the beatification of John XXIII to that of Pius IX — two polar opposites that were linked only because someone thought that was a neat way of appeasing various factions. Oh come on now.

    And in other cases, such as Pius XII, canonization becomes a way of vindicating that person’s political record. Even if one admits that we have something to learn from Pius XII and how he handled a most difficult and complicated situation, we do not need for him to be a saint to learn those lessons.

    I believe we currently have causes for canonization for every pope of the 20th century, and within an hour of Benedict’s death, his cause will be launched. A 50-year rule sounds like a good idea unless canonization is by acclamation of an ecumenical council. And even then, one need only recall the history of Vatican I to realize that even an ecumenical council can be swayed by a resolute pontiff.

    If every pope is automatically a candidate for sainthood, it cheapens the veneration of the saints, because it becomes a perk of office. And it overlooks the reason we single out people to be saints; so that we may imitate them. I have no doubt that John Paul II was a holy man. But for whom is he a model? Old men who live in Renaissance palazzos and write long documents? Is he the patron saint of unread writers? I mean no disrespect, but what about his pontificate is a model for the average Christian? I will admit there are many fine examples in his early life that bear imitation, but one could cite thousands — millions — of others who did similar things but who will never be canonized.

    We don’t need more canonized popes. With the exception of John XXIII, none of them has had a significant following of devotion, unless you count scoring partisan points as devotion. What we need are more everyday Christians canonized, people real people can imitate in some distinct witness of heroic virtue. Maybe if I were to become pope I would have something to learn from John Paul II in everyday life, but the days of deacons being elected pope are long gone. I hunger and thirst for people who gave authentic witness that was more than writing encyclicals and reading formalized homilies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s