When the saints go marching in

Editorial, Normal

The National, Friday, April 29, 2011

JOHN Paul II’s beatification this weekend is the quickest of modern times – what does it take to be fast-tracked to sainthood?
Catholics may believe there is something supernatural about their church but, as the 13th century theologian St Thomas Aquinas taught, it is not exempt from the normal realities of human nature – including the laws of psychology, sociology and even politics.
If that is true of the church writ large, it is also true of the business of declaring saints. That fact will be on clear display on Sunday, when Pope John Paul II is beatified, the final step before sainthood, in a ceremony in Rome that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to St Peter’s Square.
John Paul’s beatification comes just six years and one month after his death in 2005. The perception of haste has puzzled some observers, especially those inclined to question the late pope’s record on combating the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.
Formally speaking, the Vatican’s explanation is that all the traditional criteria have been met. There is a popular grassroots conviction that John Paul was a holy man – an exhaustive four-volume Vatican study concluded that he lived a life of “heroic virtue” – and a miracle has been documented as resulting from his intervention.
The miracle involves the healing of a 49-year-old French nun from Parkinson’s disease, the same affliction from which the late pope suffered.
John Paul reformed the sainthood process in 1983, making it faster, simpler and cheaper. The office of “devil’s advocate” – an official whose job was to try to knock down the case for sainthood – was eliminated and the required number of miracles was dropped.
The idea was to lift up contemporary role models of holiness in order to convince a jaded secular world that sanctity is alive  here and now. The results are well known: John Paul II beatified and canonised more people than all previous popes combined.
Since the reforms took effect, at least 20 cases qualify as “fast track” beatifications, meaning the candidate was beatified within 30 years of death. Taking a careful look at that list, aside from lives of holiness and miracle reports, at least five factors appear to influence who makes the cut.
First, successful candidates have an organisation behind them with both the resources and the political savvy to move the ball. The Catholic movement Opus Dei (of Da Vinci Code fame), for instance, boasts a roster of skilled canon lawyers, and they invested significant resources in their founder’s cause. St Josemaria Escriva was canonised in 2002.
Second, several fast-track cases involve a “first”, usually to recognise either a geographical region or an under-represented constituency.
It is also striking that 12 of these fact-track beatifications have been women. That is arguably related to an effort to counter perceptions that the church is hostile to women.
Third, there is sometimes a political or cultural issue attached to the cause.
In other cases, the perceived issue is internal to the church.
Fourth, church officials may feel a personal investment in a cause.
Fifth, fast-track cases generally enjoy overwhelming hierarchical support, both from the bishops of the region and in Rome.
All five criteria are clearly in place with John Paul II. He has got powerful institutional backing both in Poland and in Rome. – BBC