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Pope Francis should give us a break from this flurry of papal saints

2013 September 30

The date for the arrival of two more saints within the Catholic Church will be announced today. So what’s two more, given the recent deluge from the Vatican? After all, Pope John Paul II, by himself created more saints than all previous popes put together. But this time John Paul II is to be one of them, along with a predecessor pope, John XXIII.

This is a bad idea, especially at a time when the new incumbent, Pope Francis, is sending out so many signals that he intends real change within the world’s biggest faith.  It is not just his gestures of ostentatious ordinariness – carrying his own bags, making his own phonecalls, eating in the refectory. He has also begun to shake up the Vatican Bank, the Curia and to appoint a raft of more open-minded top officials. So why stick with the old ways on making saints?

For the first half of Christianity’s 2,000-year-history, saints were created by the acclamation of ordinary believers. It often took centuries for the authorities officially to endorse this populist sanctification.  But JP2’s elevation to sainthood must be the fastest in history. His successor, Benedict XVI, even dispensed with the requirement that you have to be dead five years before the sainting process can begin.

In medieval times the delay was purposely far longer. The passing years allowed the “heroic virtue” of the saint to eclipse any personal failings in the public memory. But ever since the Vatican took control of canonisations in the 11th century, periodically tightening its control ever since, the process has become politicised. Pope Benedict’s fast-tracking of his predecessor was, in part, an attempt to consolidate his conservative legacy – and create a bulwark against what both men saw as the excesses of the Second Vatican Council which revolutionised Catholicism in the 1960s.

There is a political dimension to today’s announcement. The Polish pope’s canonisation had been approved before Pope Francis took over. So Francis will couple it with that of John XXIII, who launched the Vatican II revolution. This is a clear attempt to neutralise the political impact of the rush to promote JP2 to sainthood. The liberal “Good Pope John” will counter-balance the conservative “John Paul the Great”.

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