By Fr. George Welzbacher
March 9, 2008
In addition to drawing huge crowds to his Wednesday colloquies in St. Peter's Square Pope Benedict is leaving his mark on Church legislation. A recent example: his grant of permission to all priests in good standing in the Latin rite to offer Mass in accord with the pre-Vatican II Tridentine ritual, if they should choose to do so, with no permission of the local ordinary, the local bishop, required. And now the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has issued at Pope Benedict's command a 45-page instruction insisting, among other things, on the need for "greater sobriety and rigor" on the part of bishops as they conduct at the local level the investigation of potential candidates for canonization. An interesting Op-Ed essay on this new instruction from the Vatican appeared in last Monday's New York Times (March 3rd). It was written by a Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, who, thank heaven, does not define his mission (as do some of his colleagues) as the incitement of rebellion against the Church. The saints be praised! May I share Father Martin's essay with you here.
* * * * *Trials of the Saints
By: James Martin
Last Month, while Americans celebrated the feast days of two secular saints, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the Vatican issued a surprising new directive calling for greater rigor in its own saint-making process. Published by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the 45-page document called for "strict adherence" to existing rules, in response to some concerns that the canonization procedures had been watered down over the last two decades.
Such criticisms are only half correct: The Vatican's rules are actually far more rigorous than many may suspect Still, the church could increase its credibility even further in this department with a few additional benchmarks.
During his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II beatified 1,340 people and canonized almost 500- more than all his predecessors combined since the current procedures were introduced in 1588. John Paul also waived the traditional five-year waiting period required before the process, or "cause," could begin for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997.
The Vatican's new document says that some procedures had become "problematic." As a result local bishops are now instructed to exercise "greater sobriety and rigor" in determining which saint-to-be they send for approval to Rome. Candidates should not be promoted by small interest groups; rather, their reputation for holiness must be "spontaneous and not artificially procured." Officials vetting the cases must be impartial, and not omit negative aspects of a person's life. And the examination of the miracles required for canonization must make use of "all clinical and technical means."
While Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul may already be saints in the public mind, for example, the Vatican takes a longer view. Canonization has long been an arduous procedure, which includes gathering evidence for a life of heroic sanctity, interviewing contemporaries, and examining a person's writings for any hint of unorthodoxy. One medically certified miracle is required for beatification (when the person is declared "blessed") and one more for canonization. Only then will the pope declare a person a saint and worthy of "public veneration "
Even the standard for verifying miracles, arguably the aspect of the process that causes the most eye-rolling among agnostics and atheists, is famously strict. The congregation draws on teams of doctors (not all of them Catholic) who assiduously rule out any other cause for a healing. Typically, the person cured will have prayed for the saint's intercession. Any miracle must be instantaneous, permanent, and medically verifiable. Those "cured" cannot simply have improved, cannot relapse and cannot have sought medical care (or at least must have given it up well before the miracle). Consequently, the verification process can take decades, as doctors monitor the stricken person's progress.
Vatican standards for miracles are high not simply because the church is seeking irrefutable evidence of divine intervention, but because the church has much to lose if a miracle is later debunked.
The Oxford historian Ruth Harris, for example, uncovered evidence of several early "hearings" at the French shrine of Lourdes that were widely held to be miracles by the local populace, but which were rejected by exacting Church officials worried about a rush to judgment.
The Vatican understands that any canonization procedures that seem rushed, biased or faulty would invite not only public derision, but also the suspicion of the faithful today and in centuries to come. Any whiff of fast-tracking could decrease respect for a new saint. That might be one reason Pope Benedict XVI did not accede to the wishes of the crowds at John Paul's funeral in April, 2005, who loudly called for "Santo subito!"-"Sainthood now!" Benedict's implicit response was: "Not yet."
But to combat ingrained and increasing skepticism, the Church could go even further. First, officials could resolve that they will continue to adhere to the five-year waiting period, no matter how popular the candidate might be at death. Second, while the desire to recognize sanctity across the globe is laudable and serves as a reminder that holiness knows no boundaries, the Church could avoid "bumping up" someone in line because the person hails from a country with relatively few saints.
Finally, the Church could avoid favoring (or disfavoring) candidates out of any political implications. Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980 and who spoke out in defense of the embattled poor, seems to fit the classic definition of a martyr. Yet for many years his cause seemed to have stalled, probably because of his affinity for left-leaning "liberation theology"....
Catholics should welcome the Vatican's insistence on increased rigor in its saint-making guidelines. The redoubled commitment to an impartial judging of a saint's life demonstrates that the Church does not "create" saints as much as it simply recognizes them. Likewise, its renewed reminders that, for the Church, miracles are serious scientific business, may make it more difficult for agnostics and atheists to disbelieve.
And easier for believers to believe.
* * * * *Many Catholics in the English-speaking world have shown a special interest in the status of John Henry Cardinal Newman's cause for canonization. The following item appeared in the "News Notes" section of The Wanderer for February 28, 2008.
Cardinal Newman's Cause Advancing.- The beatification of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman is nearing, reported The London Times Peter Jennings February 18.
Cardinal Newman, 1801-1890, declared "venerable" by Pope John Paul II in 1991, may be beatified before the end of 2008, according to the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Jose Cardinal Saraiva Martins.
The miracle needed for the beatification, reported Fr. Paul Chavasse, the Provost of the Birmingham Oratory in Edgbaston which Newman founded, is claimed by a resident of the United States, Deacon Jack Sullivan of the Archdiocese of Boston.
Fr. Chavasse told the Times: "At present the Congregation for Saints in Rome is meticulously investigating the 'miraculous' healing during 2001 of Deacon Jack Sullivan from the Archdiocese of Boston. We encourage everyone to redouble their prayers for a successful outcome.
"The beatification of this great English cardinal will hold him up to the Church worldwide as a sure guide of orthodoxy, at a time when the Catholic faith is under increasing attack in our secular society," he added.
The Times report continued: "[Deacon] Sullivan, 69, a magistrate from Marshfield, Mass., had a severe spinal disorder but was restored to full mobility after prayer to Cardinal Newman on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 2001....
"The only Englishman [thus far] to be declared a Doctor of the Church is the Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk, who died in 735-an honor bestowed by Pope Leo XIII in 1899."
* * * * *While he is not perhaps tout de suite an obvious candidate for canonization, Bill Buckley, (William F. Buckley, Jr.,) an outstanding Catholic intellectual, passed to God's judgment a few days ago. Author of more than fifty books on an amazing range of topics, non-fiction and fiction alike, and both a prolific columnist and the founding editor of the distinguished conservative journal The National Review, and for good measure the presiding host for decades on the popular television program "Firing Line", Mr. Buckley fostered the careers of scores of young conservative writers and gave American conservatism a sturdy and highly respectable intellectual foundation, beginning with the book he wrote in his early twenties: God and Man at Yale. His never failing brilliant wit was perhaps most memorably displayed back in 1965 when he was quixotically campaigning for the office of Mayor of New York. At a press conference he was asked: Do you have any chance of winning? " No." Do you really want to be mayor? " I've never considered it." Well, conservatively speaking, how many votes do you expect to get? "One". And who would cast that vote? " My secretary" What will you do if elected? "Demand a recount."
For a newcomer he in fact did pretty well; he garnered about 14% of the vote and thus forcefully reminded the high and the mighty in America's premier city that the foes of high taxes and the critics of the laxity then prevailing in the enforcement of criminal law were a significant group that could not be ignored, thus preparing the way for the renaissance of the city under a later administration. A devout Roman Catholic all of hiv life, he bore courageous witness to the faith before the radically secular glitterati who control our nation's media. May he rest in peace.