By Ian Harris Otago Daily Times May 9, 2014
Catholics may be short of priests but never of saints. They have more than 10,000 to choose from – and last month they got two more: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. In the church’s eyes they have been “transformed fully by the grace of Christ and are with God in the heavenly kingdom” (which John Paul said was a state of being, not a place). They were deemed to have performed two miracles, though John passed muster with only one, and relics were to hand: for John a piece of skin, for John Paul a vial of blood.
A key qualification for sainthood is to be dead, but it helps to have been male, clergy and a pope. The latest additions have their critics. Traditionalists disapprove of the way John set out to jolt the church into the modern world through the Second Vatican Council. Others frowned on John Paul’s centralising tendencies, and were appalled at his tepid response to priestly sex abuse.
With the status of sainthood so high and steeped in the supernatural, myth-making becomes inevitable. Among the oddballs have been St Wilgefortis, devout teenage daughter of a Portuguese king 700 years ago, who prayed to be ugly so that she would not be forced to marry a pagan king. Her prayer was answered: she grew whiskers. Wives keen to be rid of their husbands began to pray to her for help. Today she is regarded as a pious fiction. The French St Guinefort was put to death when he was mistakenly thought to have killed a baby he was actually trying to save from a snake. Local women venerated him as a protector of children. What marks Guinefort out among the saints is that he was a dog.
The proliferation of local saints with local followings led popes to rein saint-making in. From the 12th century canonisation became the prerogative of Rome. In 1969 a clean-up stripped 93 dubious saints from the church’s universal calendar as the stuff of local legend, including high-profile figures such as St Christopher, St George and St Nicholas (who nonetheless lives on in secular mythology as Santa Claus).
Later John Paul cranked up the assembly line and more than offset the deficit. He beatified 1340 people, the first step to sainthood, and proclaimed 483 fully-fledged saints – more than all his predecessors in the past 500 years. In earlier eras, when it was taken for granted that the natural and supernatural worlds were each as real as the other, the idea that saints continued to exert influence from heaven after they died seemed perfectly logical. They had been devoted to Christ and had given the church exceptional service. Many were martyrs. Their bones and other relics were believed to be channels for miracles.
The common people, lacking easy access to physicians and pharmacists, turned to saints to protect from headaches, sore throats, epilepsy, insanity, accidents, whatever. People called on them as healers, guardians, and patrons of countries, cities, institutions and trades. Their shrines attracted pilgrims, prayers and profits. Even today, people wedded to that way of understanding the world will see nothing strange in the way popes continue to create new saints. The laws of chance make it certain that those who pray to them will succeed in at least some of their petitions. But for those who have moved beyond this pre-modern mindset, the phenomenon belongs to a past world, not the present.
That said, it is clear that as role models, most of the saints in the Catholic gallery compare more than favourably with the pop, film and sporting celebrities beloved of contemporary culture. The cult of the saints is, of course, a distinctly Catholic practice. From the earliest days of the 16th-century Reformation, Protestants have rejected it as both unnecessary and a deviation from focussing on Christ alone – and from the way the word is used in the Bible itself.
The apostle Paul, for example, writes to the “saints” in various cities, living people who have centred their lives in Christ. The Greek word he uses also means “holy”. Translators have rounded the term out to “Christ’s men and women”, “faithful Christians”, “God’s own people”.
There’s nothing there that secular Christians should object to – that is, those who would say that Jesus is decisive in their lives, but who look for meaning, purpose and fulfilment within this world of space and time, not beyond it. Saints are meant to be flesh and blood in the here and now. I know some.