From the dawn of the Resurrection, the Church has celebrated with special affection and reverence the lives of all those it holds dear – who strove throughout their whole existences to follow and emulate the example of Jesus Christ, and to promote the spirit of love, peace and justice which He left as an enduring testament in the narrative accounts of His life, which now make up the four Gospels of the New Testament.
In the early Church there really was no formal process by which the Christian community would acknowledge various persons as being in eternal communion with God. At first, martyrdom was thought to be the surest guarantee of one spending eternity with the Risen Christ. Thus — from the mid-second century onward — the practice of venerating the martyrs of the Church arose and would lead to further devotions celebrating the fidelity of these followers of Christ even to the very end of their earthly lives. It would later come to be routine practice for the Eucharist to be celebrated at the graves of martyrs — substantial evidence of this is found in the catacombs of Rome.
Eventually, the designation of saints (“holy ones”), would expand to encompass categories of Christians who may not necessarily have suffered a martyr’s death, but nevertheless, served as zealous imitators of the example of Christ portrayed in the Gospels – proclaiming the Good News through word and deed and living selfless lives motivated primarily by concern for the needs of others rather than their own. From the very beginning, these exemplars of the faith were seen not just as distant heroes on which to model our own spiritual lives, but more profoundly, as living brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ – connected by a communion so mystical that it could not be separated by the bonds of a temporal death. And so, the saints came to be seen as friends and as indispensable guides — united through the mystical communion of saints, which transcends the boundaries of physical comprehension — who would accompany us through life and aid us by their prayers, as we awaited to be conformed to their state of total union and enlightenment before God, the Source of all created things.
As mentioned before, the act of recognizing various individuals as having lived sanctified lives –which would in turn, explain their eternal communion with God even following their temporal existences — did not become a formal process until well into medieval times. Throughout this period, saints were acknowledged by widespread popular acclaim and through the intensity and appeal of their local cults — as well as the effects that these localized devotional movements would come to have on the universal Church. It was not until the early thirteenth century that the notion of canonization would become a coordinated process centralized around the See of Rome, requiring papal endorsement for proceedings to go forward.
With all of these historical considerations having been pondered it is important to understand and note that whether through the act of popular acclaim — which was prevalent in the early Church — or through the process of formal canonization — in which candidates are evaluated and scrutinized by the pertinent ecclesiastical authorities in Rome — acknowledging and venerating an individual as a saint has never diminished anything from their fallible humanity. In fact, this is something that we all share in common with them. To celebrate a person as a saint, even when carried out through canonization, is not necessarily an endorsement or an acclamation that this individual has lived a totally faultless existence – whether in matters of conscience or conviction, and even in terms of certain actions which they may have carried out. In short, saints are not perfect people and are susceptible to the same failings and ignorant shortfalls that all of humanity is prey to – simply as a consequence of our common mortality and imperfection. The Church’s history has offered countless examples of such individuals who are indeed celebrated as saints, worthy of eternal communion with God, and yet possessed very human frailties — shaped by their own personal failings or by the ignorances which may have been taken as factual in their day of age.
Perhaps it would be useful to contemplate four specific examples who — at various times — were elevated to the level of universal veneration among the altars of the Church, but who still had very fallible — if not frail tendencies. These inherent traits can only serve to highlight the premise that sanctity is certainly not equivalent to any sort of notion that advocates human perfection.
Augustine of Hippo — one of the pillars of Western Christianity, and undoubtedly the most influential and prolific theologian of the fifth century – is no exception to this standard. Probably having one of the most moving and endearing conversion stories of any saint, Augustine would continue to have a driving impact on Christendom — as his thoughts on the Trinity, original sin, the Eucharist, as well as many other philosophical insights and opinions would greatly contribute to the further development of the Church in subsequent centuries.
Yet, there is another strand of Augustine’s monumental theological legacy which may be less known when compared to his most famous writings. During the period in which Augustine wrote there were a plethora of interpretations that existed when it came to interpreting the heart of what the message of Jesus of Nazareth consisted of and what it truly meant to be a Christian — following in His stead. Many of those whose opinions he did not share, Augustine — and many others in the Church at the time — considered to be “heretics” and “schismatics”, distorting the faith of Christianity they thought was truly meaningful. While it may not necessarily be useful to rehash those respective debates of theology, it is enlightening to see how Augustine responded to those various groups who differed in their interpretations of Scripture and practice in the Church of his day.
Reflecting on these very matters, Augustine once referenced an incident in the Gospels to properly contextualize his thoughts on what he thought the proper course of action would be when responding to those who did not agree with him on these contentious issues. Recounting the parable of the wedding feast — which is a metaphor used to explain the Kingdom of God — found in Matthew and Luke’s gospels Augustine made it critical to emphasize that in the account, Jesus is trying to compel all to convert to faith in Him. In modern translations, the verb “invite” is used to issue an objective and positive invitation to all those who are encouraged to attend the wedding feast. However, in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Gospels which was used in Augustine’s day, the exact phrasing used in the respective passage was “coge intrare”, which literally means to “compel inside.” Thus, in his mind, — seemingly with direct endorsement from the words of Christ Himself — it was perfectly appropriate to force those who did not adhere completely with what he saw as the genuine faith of the Church into absolute compliance with the theological rubrics of the time. He even went further to state that in certain cases, violence against those who he viewed as heretics and schismatics, could be justifiable if they had been offered the opportunity to recant of their opinions and had refused to do so. This very same train of thought seemed to be the primary motivation behind the successive Crusades of the Middle Ages as well as the Spanish Inquisition. Although such events may have arisen as well-intentioned ideas, it is obvious how gravely reprehensible and cruel they were to the many people — usually adherents of non-Christian religions — who were harmed by the effects of these initiatives.
Even though no direct links can be made, it could be said — theoretically — that the very foundations for such mistaken episodes in history may indeed have had their origin in the opines and thoughts of one of the most celebrated and prominent theologians in the history of the universal Church — St. Augustine.
Nearly a millenia would pass before another exceptionally brilliant thinker – and later, fellow Doctor of the Church — would leave his own distinctive mark upon the Body of Christ with much the same influential scope as Augustine had. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican priest of the mid-thirteenth century who would enrich the universal Church in innumerable ways — in the areas of theology, philosophy, political thought, as well as the ways of logic and reason. The crown jewel of Thomas’s intellectual prowess was his truly awesome and enduring work, the Summa Theologica. In it, he expounded on all the main points of Christian theology – explaining everything through the lens of reason. Brilliant as this tome was, some of the philosophical arguments which he would employ in the Summa were clearly conditioned by the historical, as well as the cultural, climate of the Middle Ages in which he lived.
In one section in which he comments on the role that women play in society as well as the theological sphere he states:
“It would seem that the woman should not have been made in the first production of things…For the Philosopher says that ‘the female is a misbegotten male.’ But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore, women should not have been made at that first production.”
Going further in some cases, he goes so far as to say that a woman is simply a “failed man ” (mas occasionatus).
In complete fairness and objectivity, it must be understood that Thomas wrote under the auspices of the prevailing norms and attitudes of his time. Theologically, women began to be denigrated and treated as inferior as the Church approached the Middle Ages. In contrast to the rather instrumental and pivotal roles they had occupied and carried out in the early Church, medieval theology seemed preoccupied with defining gender roles – almost exclusively – based on the creation accounts found in the pages of Genesis. Because Eve is portrayed in the account as offering the fruit of the forbidden tree to Adam and acquiescing to the promptings of the serpent, it became logical to conclude that sin entered the human race through the weak resolve of a woman – thus, all women must be tainted as a result of this deplorable action, which seemingly altered the trajectory of human history forever. Hence, it became natural to view all women as defective – giving rise to the notion of the “weaker sex.” So, on the one hand, Thomas was only reflecting this deeply prejudiced – but at his time – entirely plausible way of explaining the role and purpose that women should fulfill in the world and the Church at large.
On the other hand — even though it can be argued that a partial acquittal of Thomas Aquinas on this subject can be made in view of the ideas and philosophy that were the prevalent opinion in his day — this cannot excuse the impact that these very statements may have had on the development of the Church’s attitude towards women, particularly within Catholicism. Is the premise that women cannot adequately convey the person of Christ as sacramental ministers because Jesus did not “choose” women as apostles really that far removed from the core of St. Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on women? Both arguments seem to be largely conditioned on the historical paradigms of their own respective times and cultures instead of any fundamental truth which issued forth from the mouth of God. Even as humanity moved ever forward — spurned by the exciting, innovative spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which had captivated the entire world — certain forces within the church would continue to cling stubbornly to ecclesiastical dogma and tradition, rather than trusting the delightful surprises and ideas that were being offered in a vast array of new paradigms and venues of discussion.
Fast forward to nineteenth century Europe. Throughout the continent — new ideas, postulates, political theories and other sensational movements pop up practically overnight. In Germany, the philosopher Karl Marx publishes a thesis for an entirely new form of society in contrast to the form of unregulated capitalism which had originated in the wake of medieval feudalism. The Communist Manifesto proposed that instead of individuals striving on their own efforts to obtain wealth, success, and security all of these things should be provided by government infrastructures and coordination — thus, creating an idyllic world where all sectors of life are equally balanced when compared to another’s. The ultimate goal was to eliminate the class struggle and simultaneously put an end to poverty. However, when history is analyzed it can be shown that — while a hopeful and promising concept — communism has usually failed to comprehensively deliver on its core objectives, and instead, has often led to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes that bring about the exact opposite of what Marx hoped to achieve with his theory.
Yet, it was not this fact that kept the institutional church of the nineteenth century in strict opposition to all new democratic and non-monarchical forms of government that would arise throughout Europe. From the middle of the century onward, the pontificate of Pope Pius IX would shape the climate of the Catholic church for more than a generation. Deeply suspicious of how these new democratic movements might undermine the authority of the church in civic life, Pius issued a document – entitled “The Syllabus of Errors” — which laid out comprehensively all of the ways in which he thought this new current of political thought was incompatible with the Catholic faith. In eighty statements, he made sweeping condemnations on a plethora of various issues – without presenting perspectives from countering viewpoints. Pius unilaterally denounced the concept of the separation of church and state, the idea of religious freedom as being an inherent right of man, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, socialism, communism, and even forbade Catholic clerics or laity from forming their own groups or biblical societies. To sum all of these points up, the pope explicitly rejected the idea that, “the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile and align himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Aside from waging outright war on everything the modern world would come to stand for, Pope Pius also had another intensely controversial and troubling incident which would forever cast a cloud over his tenure serving the Church as the Bishop of Rome.
At this point in time, a large portion of Italy was still directly under the jurisdiction of the Vatican (the Papal States). One of these provinces was Bologna, in the north of the country. In a certain town in the region, a Christian woman worked as a servant to a Jewish household – surnamed Mortara. Sometime during her course of employment at the house the one year old toddler of the Mortaras – Edgardo – fell gravely ill. The maid took matters into her own hands and, fearing the eternal fate of the child’s soul now confronting the prospect of death, had him baptized. Since there was no separation of church and state at the time, when this clandestine act was discovered the police seized the child and removed him from his home — because he was now officially a Christian being raised by a Jewish family. It came to happen that Pope Pius IX received news of the situation and volunteered to raise Edgardo in Rome as a Christian. Obviously, because the word of il papa was law — quite literally — in this day of age, that was exactly what transpired.
It would turn out that even in the face of international outrage over this incident — from Jewish as well as secular circles — the pope never relented on this decision and Edgardo Mortara would live out the rest of his childhood within the papal household in Rome. He was given the best of Catholic educations and would later go on to enter the seminary and become a priest. Yet, the Jewish parents of his birth were never permitted to see him again. In response to this the pope stated publicly that he thought it was the family’s fault for bringing this trouble on themselves by employing a Christian servant — which was illegal at the time. Despite the intense criticism he would receive throughout the rest of his pontificate, Pope Pius remained steadfast and would only respond by saying, “I have the Blessed Virgin on my side.”
Casting aside intense doubts and protestation from both Jewish and Christian groups the late John Paul II beatified Pius IX in September of 2000 — mostly likely because he declared the belief of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a dogma and was the author of the doctrine of papal infallibility (which was defined at Vatican I and convened during Pius’s pontificate). Yet even as one Pius who had done all he could to fight democratic and institutional progress in the modern world had gone down in history engrossed in contradictions, still another would lead the Church as Bishop of Rome into the dawn of the twentieth century.
From 1903 – 1914 Pope Pius X served the People of God, leading the Church as the Bishop of Rome. He was canonized in 1954 by Pope Pius XII. Pius X is particularly remembered for his very honest and well-meaning intentions for the benefit and renewal of the universal church. He was greatly devoted to the Holy Eucharist, and in an age when it was still rare for the average Catholic to receive Communion on a weekly basis, Pius encouraged all — particularly children — to have an intense love and recourse to the Eucharist. It is for these positive initiatives that he is remembered fondly and celebrated as an exemplary figure in the lives of the saints which the church commemorates.
However, there was another perplexing strand to Pius X. Just as his predecessor — with whom he shared the same papal name — had, Pius continued to maintain a deep antipathy towards contemporary society. He carried on the trend of virulently condemning “modernism” in all its forms. For all intensive purposes, “modernist” thinking can accurately be categorized as any assertion that conflicted with current Catholic doctrines of the time. Once again, negations were simply issued on a whole host of potential questions — which the institutional church had been presented with the opportunity to confront comprehensively and objectively. The concept of democratic governments — as contrasted with authoritarian monarchies — was rejected. Catholic teaching was forbidden from being evaluated in light of the findings of modern science.
And in one of the most bizarre and outrageous manifestations of this propaganda, the clergy were simply made to be forced pawns of Pius’s campaign against the modern world. In 1910, the pope required all clergy and those involved in religious education within Catholic institutions throughout the world to take an “Oath Against Modernism.” If anyone in a teaching position was found to subscribe to “modernist” sentiments their writings could be censored, or they may simply have found themselves terminated from their respective academic stations. Yet it was not just teachers who were subjected to this intensely subjective scrutiny from the Vatican. Using elements of the Roman Curia (the various configurations of ecclesiastical congregations and councils that make up the Vatican) Pope Pius spied on bishops, theologians and Catholic politicians, ensuring that as many as possible subscribed to his interpretation of the Catholic faith. To many, the events described may not sound that different from realities which have been taking place in today’s Catholic church almost immediately following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.
In all of the aforementioned examples, we have seen that the saints who are celebrated by the church truly can be heroic individuals. Yet, this does not in any way, diminish — or gloss over — the facets that construct all of us and define us as human beings. Having limitations is one of these characteristics. No human individual is ever totally perfect, and no one can ever hope to mirror flawlessly an image of divine perfection which may seem to be permeable when the mention of “saints” is evoked. If anything, the failings that have been chronicled here present us with hope and courage, assuring us that even with our own faults we can still strive to always pursue and promote a life filled with — and completely dedicated to — the glory of God.
On the other hand, mistakes in history must be reconciled and grappled with, having their full effects contemplated seriously. In many of the instances mentioned above, the ignorance of the time or a fear of change clearly may have been the prime motivator of many of the actions that were taken in response to an unknown or misunderstood reality. However, acknowledging mistakes is not enough. Admitting the wrongs committed and pondering how justice can be properly disseminated to all those effected is the first — and should be the main — priority in moving forward beyond the misjudgments of the past.
Can we not do the same with these aforementioned saints? Can we not do this when it comes to the record of the late John Paul II? Is there a real balance that can be struck between honoring and exalting the great achievements on behalf of justice, human rights, interreligious dialogue and many other great initiatives — which he courageously championed — while still allowing the jury to remain open when evaluating all the actions which took place during his pontificate? Particularly, how can we not ponder or continue to demand accountability for many of the actions that may have been taken as a result of ideological submission or out of generational and demographic ignorance?
Therefore, it is my conviction that while we can and must continue to ask questions about many of the troubling and truly paradoxical specifics of John Paul II’s papacy — this should not prevent us from celebrating or honoring him as a fervent servant of Jesus Christ who brought many to the Church and inspired countless souls with his eloquent reflections on the essence of the Gospel. It was the Polish Pope himself who stated that, “the saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Whether it is by venerating his intense zeal for spreading the message of Christ to all humanity — or in frankly questioning particular courses of action taken during his pontificate (which may have contradicted the underlying spirit of the Gospel), we should all pray that through the memory and probing of the lasting mark Karol Wojtyła has imprinted upon the Church, that it truly would give way to an era of renewal, unbridled promise, and meaningful transformation.