ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
104. The Church has also included in the annual cycle days devoted to the memory of the martyrs and the other saints. Raised up to perfection by the manifold grace of God, and already in possession of eternal salvation, they sing God's perfect praise in heaven and offer prayers for us. By celebrating the passage of these saints from earth to heaven the Church proclaims the paschal mystery achieved in the saints who have suffered and been glorified with Christ; she proposes them to the faithful as examples drawing all to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she pleads for God's favors.
Have saints been canonized for heroic services in plagues? I put this question into “search” and instantly came to the colorful Catholic evangelical news service Aleteia. A March 12, 2020 story highlights just six of many Christian heroes and heroines renowned for courage and charity in caring for the sick in the many plagues of the Christian era. In fact, these Gospel motivated “frontline providers” were regarded with the same reverence as martyrs. In Alexandria, Egypt, around 250 A.D., St. Dionysius wrote of these Christians: “Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
St. Charles Borromeo [1538-1584], Bishop of Milan, Italy, is included in this summary. When famine and plague visited his city, Borromeo made out his will, prepared himself spiritually for death, and plunged into physical care of the sick and starving. The saintly bishop, known primarily for his work in reforming the clergy after the Council of Trent, survived the plague as well as a gunshot from a disgruntled unreformed cleric. Borromeo was revered by the Church [well, perhaps not by unreformed bishops and priests] for his personal sanctity, his charity, his energies to promote education, including CCD, and primarily as the church figure most identified with reforming the Church in the face of the Protestant Reformation. He checked all the boxes, so to speak.
Paragraph 104 of Sacrosanctum Concilium pays special attention to the saints. While it is true that only a very small percentage of canonized saints are universally remembered with feast days in the daily flow of the Church’s liturgical calendar, it is fitting to designate those who have lived the Gospel with extraordinary dedication. Strange to say, but saints are invaluable to the catechetical process because they provide concrete examples of what the generic term “holiness” looks like. The assumption, of course, is that we who look back on the saints take the time to understand them in their historical context. In fact, the existence of a cult of devotion to a particular individual was usually the preferred way of designating a new saint. The formal process of canonization did not originate until 993 A.D. when Pope John XV declared St. Ulrich of Augsburg.
By the end of the first millennium there were already many “saints” revered by the faithful, some locally and some universally; the latter had their names included in public liturgy, in preaching, in art, in morality plays, and in the recounting of their tales. The Apostles, including Paul, were honored as companions of Christ and founders of the Christian Church; the evangelists were likewise esteemed. Along with faithful preaching of the Lord Jesus, death by martyrdom was highly esteemed, to the point that history books describe the years 100-300 A.D. as “the age of martyrs.” Consider this citation from our current Eucharistic Prayer 1:
“To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners,
hope in your abundant mercies,
graciously grant some share
and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs:
with John the Baptist, Stephen,
Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia)
and all your Saints.”
Perpetua and Felicity are worthy of special note here, for their executions in the Circus of Carthage in 202 A.D. is possibly the best documented of all saintly martyrdoms of this era. Perpetua kept a diary in prison, preserved by an outside witness who added the details of their deaths. It is easy to understand how the acta sanctorum or accounts of the saints served as powerful catechetics. Where possible, the Eucharist was celebrated over the sites of their burial, and eventually even churches were built over the graves.
In the age of the Christological Councils [325 A.D. through 451 A.D.]—which defined the doctrines of Jesus’ true identity as we know them in the Creed—the greatest saints were the scholars, writers, thinkers, and spokespersons, a period which included St. Leo the Great, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, who was held in house arrest by the citizens of Hippo in North Africa until he agreed to serve as their bishop. Popular cult indeed, even before death! The Dark Ages produced missionary saints who stretched the boundaries of Christianity as the Western Roman Empire collapsed. Famous in this era were St. Patrick, St. Boniface [Germany], and Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who developed the Cyrillic alphabet to convert Eastern Europe. The Dark Ages were enlightened considerably by St. Benedict, the founder of modern monasticism which provided a backbone of civilized existence when civil rule fail.
The high Middle Ages saw the universities produce several saints who advanced Christian thinking into the modern era. Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great represented the height of Dominican scholarship while St. Bonaventure came forth from the new Franciscan order. The appearance of the new “mendicant” [begging] orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, were the tip of a medieval iceberg of grass roots spiritual activism and mysticism that disturbed the authority of the Church and attracted investigation by the new Inquisition. Francis of Assisi received the excellent advice of seeking the direct permission of the powerful Pope Innocent III to adopt the Gospel itself as his community’s rule of life and continued to enjoy the favor of Rome. Many lesser bands were much less fortunate.
The age of “canonization by cult” was ending as the management structure of the Church adopted the practice of strict doctrinal and moral investigation of those put forward for sainthood. As the age of the Reformation and the Renaissance pushed forward, the template of sainthood became the defense of Catholic life and authority as well as the propagation of the Faith to the Far East and the New World. St. Ignatius of Loyola led what might be called the pushback to Protestant theology and practice. His Jesuits established Catholic universities throughout Europe and missions around the world. Consider that the Jesuit St. Peter Canisius founded six universities in central Europe in the sixteenth century, while St. Francis Xavier’s mission work took him to the doorstep of China and St. Isaac Jogues and his companions met gruesome challenges and death as missionaries to Native Americans in what is now New York State.
Between the Council of Trent in 1563 and Vatican II in 1962, in the “Counter Reformation Church,” there were few canonizations relative to today’s number. Occasionally the piety of the faithful would break through the routine of Church life; consider the devotion to the Sacred Heart [St. Margaret Mary], to the Virgin at Lourdes [St. Bernadette], to the more compassionate treatment of penitents in the confessional [St. Alphonsus Ligouri and St. John Vianney]. In 1950 Maria Goretti, the youngest person ever canonized, was elevated to sainthood by Pope Pius XII a half century after she was stabbed to death at the age of twelve to protect her virginity. Her murderer, who attended the canonization a reformed man, died in 1970.
The canonization process was turned on its head by Pope John Paul II [r. 1978-2005] who canonized close to five hundred people in his 27-year reign. His motivations included recognition of the universal nature of the Church, as his new saints hail from all over the planet. Many of his candidates were lay persons, and a good number were women. The pontiff perhaps drew from the observation of para. 104 that the Church “proposes them to the faithful as examples drawing all to the Father through Christ.” Implicitly he made the point that sainthood was possible in simple and unremarkable circumstances; one need not die a dramatic death in a Roman Circus to bring the Gospel to others. John Paul’s great respect of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s work in utterly hopeless circumstances, and her philosophy of her work, probably impacted his thought as well. Mother Teresa observed that “we are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.”
It is one of history’s ironies that the pope who renewed the process and purpose of canonization should suffer a questionable process of his own sainthood. Historians—at least the wise ones—realize that it takes generations to know the measure of their subjects. In the matter of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI proceeded to canonize his predecessor too quickly before the full record of John Paul’s stewardship of ecclesiastical leadership could be assessed. Thus, several of John Paul’s pastoral judgments have embarrassed the Church in retrospect after his canonization. Among them the promotion of Cardinal Law of Boston to a high Roman post after the clerical sexual abuse tragedy in Law’s archdiocese became international news; a long and admiring friendship with Father Gabriel Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, whose leadership style and personal life had troubled Vatican officials since 1943; and John Paul’s multiple promotions of the American cleric Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from the College of Cardinals two years ago and laicized after a career of financial misdealing and sexual coercion.
It remains in the hands of Pope Francis as to what he will or will not reveal to the Church about John Paul and McCarrick. This particular case is a pivotal one in the matter of the Church’s transparency regarding clerical child abuse. Speaking early this year during another awkward canonization process, that of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s [1895-1979], postponed last December, Pope Francis encouraged members of the Vatican's saint-making office to continue with their rigorous investigations into lives of candidates, saying their job is to “clear away every ambiguity and doubt” that a person deserves to be a saint.
Francis did not mention Sheen by name during his previously scheduled audience with members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who vet all saint-making cases. But he did note that “saints aren’t perfect and aren’t some unreachable species of human beings.” Rather, he said, “They are people who tirelessly lived their daily lives with success and failure, finding in the Lord the strength to always get back up and continue the path.”
Pope Francis might have been wise to add: “No matter how strong the cult, for the good of the Church it is best to wait a century, when all the documents are unsealed and the lasting influence of any candidate upon the Church can be assessed by the unflinching light of history.”