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So You Want to be a Saint?

(Posted May 7, 2014)

Robert Miller, professor of religion Photography by Kelly Russo, '14

On April 27, the Catholic church canonized Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. Canonization is the process by which someone is officially made a saint, and it does not happen as often or as quickly as one might think. The process can be confusing, so I talked to Robert Miller, professor of religious studies, to learn about this special case and how a pope becomes a saint.

Q: Is it common that popes are canonized?

A: It's actually kind of rare considering how many popes there have been. There are actually not that many who are officially recognized as saints. And these two are canonized because they're considered extraordinary and because of the enormous impact they've had on the history, not only of the Catholic church, but of the world.

Q: Who decides who is canonized?

A: The process of someone becoming a saint is a process governed by the laws of the Catholic Church, and there's a very strict kind of procedure by which that happens. And normally it takes a long time. This is extremely unusual that anyone is canonized so soon after death.

Q: Could you tell me a little more about the process?

A: It's a long process but, to make it brief, for someone to become a saint, they have to be recognized by people who knew them and people who were in touch with them, as people of extraordinary saintliness, of goodliness, of compassion, people who embody all the Christian virtues to an extraordinary degree. And then, after that person's death, after a certain number of years have passed, then someone who is widely recognized as being a super good person can be considered venerable, someone worthy of reverence. And that's not very official, but it means that people can sort of look at that person as a role model. The next step towards sainthood is called beatification. If you succeed at this, then you are called "blessed." Someone who is blessed is someone who the Church authorities feel certain that their soul is in heaven. It's appropriate to then have prayers in the name of that person. But someone who is blessed is not yet a saint, so to be blessed means that that person will be commemorated and there'll be festivals in their honor, but only in the region in which they lived, not for the whole worldwide church. And to be blessed, there has to be a miracle certified. How the Church does this is not entirely clear to me. There has to be some kind of miraculous event. Normally it would be a healing or event that there is no other way to explain. Then to move from being blessed to being a saint, you have to have two of these miracles credited to your intercessory. Then, once a person is a saint, they're recognized by the entire Catholic church all around the world. They might have a day in the year assigned to be their feast day.

Q: So the person that's blessed is being prayed to?

A: Yeah, the way the Catholic Church explains it, you don't really pray to the saint as if the saint were some kind of god, but you pray through the saint to ask God to send the miracle, although that's a distinction which a lot of ordinary Catholics don't really have.

Q: Why were these two popes canonized?

A: Well, Pope John XXIII is most famous for having called the Second Vatican Council, which was a gathering of all the Catholic bishops in the world in the 1960s to sort of rethink and to modernize the Catholic church outlook and teachings and practice to make it more part of the 20th century. Until that time, the Catholic Church had been operating almost as a 17th century or 16th century institution, all the way up into the 20th century. So this really was the gigantic event, the Second Vatican Council, which lasted several years and sort of enabled Catholicism to, in a sense, join the modern world. Pope John Paul II was extraordinary in a lot of ways. He was the first non-Italian to become a pope. He was Polish. He had, as a young man and as a young bishop, lived in Poland under communism, which was pretty severe towards all religion. And he is widely understood to have been very instrumental in the downfall of communism in Europe by his ability to speak as a moral authority, and especially by his ability to sort of serve as a figure around which the people of Poland could unite against the communism that was in their country. John Paul II is very controversial because he was extremely authoritarian, trying to run the Catholic Church with very strict authority. There are many Catholics who look to him as a hero and many who look at him as a man who did a lot of damage too. His being made a saint is, for some Catholics, not entirely the best message.

Zachary Lemon, '14, Juniata Online Journalist

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