John Paul II And The Redefining Of Sainthood

The 70 people sainted by the Catholic Church since 2001 all flashed human foibles -- but their canonizations had nothing to do with achieving utter purity.
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Priests, nuns and proclaimed miracle workers, of course, dominate the lofty roster. A seamstress, a military general, and a pediatrician also joined the select sainthood league during the past 10 years.

Within that club, however, no person was perfect.

The 70 people sainted by the Catholic Church since 2001 all flashed human foibles -- including an accused conman who seemed addicted to the limelight. But their canonizations had nothing to do with achieving utter purity. In their own ways, all 70 were deemed to have used their earthly steps to mark distinct paths toward God.

That, in essence, defines a saint.

Such people are simply "sign posts," Monsignor Robert Sarno once told me from his office overlooking St. Peter's Square. The Brooklyn-born priest works in the Vatican's saint-naming wing. "Jesus is the road. How can we stay on that road until we get to heaven? ... A canonized saint is someone God chooses -- to whom God gave special grace, for all humanity to follow, to keep us on that road."

The notion of sainthood (though often called different names) spans Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and various Christian denominations. Across these beliefs, reaching that sacred threshold seems to require two basic boxes to be checked: the saints taught others how to pursue holiness, and -- in the eyes of the faithful -- they carried some version of an intercessory gift, a direct contact with the almighty, either in life or after death.

But in no religion is the idea of sainthood more painstakingly judged, nor more devoutly celebrated, than Roman Catholicism. The Catholics have the most rigid canonization rules (dozens), the most named saints (more than 10,000) and easily the most festive saint-naming parties (300,000 people sometimes wedge into St. Peter's Square for the events).

The Catholic doctrines on sainthood could eat up days of conversation. For the purpose of this post, I'll boil it down to two sentences. Catholics believe that a saint -- through his or her works or sacrifices -- offered occasional peeks at what God is like. The Church doesn't make saints -- only God has that power; the Vatican -- through its medical and theological experts -- merely identifies saints so folks may be inspired to emulate their contributions.

Nice concept.

Now the rub -- at least in terms of the Catholic bylaws.

In his zeal to promote the Catholic Church to new corners of the globe, Pope John Paul II re-wrote the Vatican's centuries-old, saint-naming canons. In 1983, he cut the number of miracles required for a Catholic canonization from four to two. (Today, in order for a saint to be named, the Vatican must investigate, vote on and agree that two supernatural events occurred after the saintly candidate's name was invoked in prayer). John Paul also eliminated the role of the so-called "Devil's Advocate" -- a centuries-old duty assigned to a Vatican official who raised questions about a candidate's virtues as well as about any alleged miracles said to have occurred in the would-be saint's name.

Armed with those radical changes, John Paul named 482 saints -- more than the number declared during the combined papacies of the past 500 years. This became sainthood's steroid era. Canonization campaigns were subsequently launched in China, India and Australia -- opening vital, new markets for the Church. But critics of the reforms loudly complained that John Paul had watered down what was supposed to be an exhaustive, exclusive system of gauging saintliness, and that he turned the Vatican into "a saint factory."

John Paul's backing of the late Capuchin priest Pio of Pietrelcina -- "Padre Pio" -- marked one example of this internal philosophical divide. Pio, who died in 1968, had been famous for his stigmata wounds, or spontaneous cases in which his palms allegedly exhibited bloody, Christ-like crucifixion holes. He developed flocks of followers. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, the Vatican investigated Pio as a fraud and barred him from saying Mass or hearing confessions.

John Paul's "saint factory" nonetheless canonized Pio in 2002.

Now, as a result of his own rule changes, John Paul is soaring toward sainthood faster than any person in Catholic history. His beatification -- the next-to-last stop on the road to canonization -- will take place May 1 in Vatican City.

This record-setting rush has raised one slippery question: Is John Paul truly worthy of sainthood?

Certainly, his life was built on the bedrock of good works: fueling a youth movement within the Catholic ranks and helping chop down communism, to name two biggies.

But John Paul's papacy will be forever tainted by the crimes of pedophile-priests during his tenure -- and, far darker, how his Vatican buried many of those sexual assault allegations.

What bad acts did John Paul ignore or fail to punish during his papacy? What did he know, when did he know it, and what did he do in response?

One fact to consider: On May 27, 2004, John Paul named ex-Boston Cardinal Bernard Law as head of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, giving him the title archpriest. That appointment came less than two years after John Paul accepted Law's resignation from his Boston post -- a move prompted by Law's repeated failure to remove pedophile priests from the ministry.

Sainthood, fundamentally, should be black and white. While no supporter of a saintly candidate can claim the contender lived a pristine life, they must make the case that all of their earthly contributions helped people -- and that they did nothing to potentially hurt people.

Just as critically, a worthy canonization cause should never be bathed in so many shades of gray.

Sainting John Paul would be an unholy blunder.

Bill Briggs is author of 'The Third Miracle,' released recently by Random House/Broadway Books. You can learn more here.

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