Too big to fail

To date, I have not written about the coming beatification of Pope John Paul II, slated for May 1. I objected to it. Yet there seemed nothing I could say that other objectors had not already said.

Then I started looking into papal history. I realized I did not need to say much about John Paul himself. I need only point out how different this time is.

In the first millennium of Christianity, many, many popes were acclaimed as saints*. But you can’t start there. Today’s ritual process of sainthood does not emerge in recognizable form until around the year 1000. After that, the flow of popes who were canonized (made saints) and beatified (declared “blessed,” one step below saint) slowed dramatically.

Some were stragglers from earlier eras whose recognition arrived at an incredible lag. Boniface IV (d. 615) does not seem to have been a saint until around the fourteenth century; Paul I (d. 767) waited until the fifteenth. The Vatican listed Leo III (d. 816) as a saint in 1673. Cesare Cardinal Baronio, while revising the calendar of saints in the late sixteenth century, wrote in Eugene I (d. 657) and Paschal I (d. 824). Nicholas I (d. 867) appeared in the Roman Martyrology in 1630. The cult of St. Hadrian III (d. 885) was approved in 1891.

With regard to those who actually lived after 1000, St. Leo IX (d. 1054) had a quick rise, his relics already enshrined by 1087. But Gregory VII, the strongman pope who famously made a German emperor do penance in the snow, died in 1085 and did not become a blessed until 1584. He was not canonized until 1606.

Celestine V, remembered as one of the few popes to resign his office, died in 1296 and was canonized in 1313. He was the fastest, a result less of sanctity than of politics: the French king wanted to repudiate Celestine’s immediate successor, the egomaniacal Boniface VIII.

Pius V, a tough Dominican who implemented the Council of Trent, died in 1572. He was beatified in 1672 and canonized in 1712. And the last canonized pope was Pius X, who depending on your point of view is either renowned or reviled for his purging of liberal theologians. He died in 1914, was beatified in 1951, and was canonized in 1954, putting him on the speedy end.

Popes who lived prior to the twentieth century and were only beatified included Victor III (d. 1087, beatified 1887), Urban II (d. 1099, beatified 1881), Eugene III (d. 1153, beatified 1872), Gregory X (d. 1276, beatified 1713), Innocent V (d. 1276, beatified 1898), Benedict XI (d. 1304, beatified 1736), Urban V (d. 1370, beatified 1870), Innocent XI (d. 1689, beatified 1956), and Pius IX (d. 1878, beatified 2000). The smallest gap in there is 122 years.

Now John XXIII, it is true, had a track rather like John Paul’s. Ordinarily, there is a canonical five-year wait after someone’s death before a cause can open. But just as Benedict XVI dropped the wait for John Paul almost immediately, so too did Paul VI perform a similar favor for John. He died in 1963, and Paul opened his cause in 1965. Nevertheless, it took thirty-five years before beatification in 2000.

Pius XII, who died in 1958 and whose cause opened alongside John’s, is still waiting, possibly forever. They are still parsing his response, or lack of one, to the Holocaust.

Popes are generally not raised to the altars at warp speeds. And here is one of the occasions we can grudgingly admire Rome for working the way it usually does, suspicious of both innovation and speed, filtering everything through generations of poker-faced monsignors. For sainthood makes people into models. We are to live as they did. They are held up that we might see Christ in their faces, and their faces in ours, and so want to do better. And while feasts sometimes drop from the calendar, the title of saint remains forever.

That is why the embarrassment can be monumental when skeletons tumble out of closets years after the halos go up. St. Joseph Calasanz (1557-1648), who founded the Piarists and was canonized in 1767, was recently found to have covered up for sexual abusers in his order. Those are the risks. Legacies take a long time–a long, long time–to unravel like skeins of thread, to come apart like layers of onions.

With that in mind, John Paul should not have gone so far so fast. He is like a Bear Stearns or Goldman Sachs: “too big to fail.” The most I will concede is that he should have waited at least as long as John, or even as long as some of the Piuses.


* The primary source for this blog post was J.N.D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986).


1 thought on “Too big to fail

  1. Pingback: Next up for beatification: Paul VI, the “Hamlet Pope” | Young Adult Catholics

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