Thousands of saints die every year, but only a handful among this “cloud of witnesses” will be raised to the altars. This we remind ourselves of every All Saints Day. Every saint could be canonized, but very few saints are.
If we ask why this is so, we find the answer in the very meaning of the word “canonize,” which comes from the Greek word for “standard.” A saint is a holy soul in heaven; a canonized saint is someone whose life is so instructive for other Catholics that the Church holds this person up as a standard.
Canonization, by the nature of the case, is providential. Consider the multitude of martyrs for Christ killed during the violent conflicts of the 20th century. Most were killed in secret, by evil men who were intent on keeping their own evil deeds secret: they were starved to death in concentration camps, shot down by machine guns in some unvisited field, or executed in the night by the secret police. All were undeniably heroes. But if we learn of the heroism of some of these -- think of Father Miguel Pro or Father Maximilian Kolbe -- it is because God wants us to learn about them, and to learn from them.
Just as God’s providence governs which saints become known as “standards,” so it governs the delay in a saint’s becoming so.
Many great saints are so beloved among their fellow Catholics that they are venerated as saints from the moment of their death, and the Church’s quick canonization simply confirms the evident fact. St. Francis of Assisi died on Oct. 3, 1226. He was pronounced a saint on July 16, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX. The very next day, the pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
In our own time, Padre Pio, Mother Theresa, and John Paul II are like this.
Yet other saints, equally astonishing and great, are not recognized as such for centuries. Joan of Arc died in 1431; she was canonized in 1920. Historians can explain the human reasons for the delay, but what was God’s?
In some cases the providential reasons for the delay seem almost obvious. St. Thomas More died in 1535, but he was canonized in 1935. His life was marked by crafty observance of law, fidelity to conscience above human opinion, and loyalty to the king but always within the bounds of loyalty to God: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” The Church has declared him the patron saint of politicians. Could it be that his canonization was delayed until the 20th century because only recently -- once governments in general became “secularized” and even atheistic -- have politicians in general found themselves in the same position as Thomas More?
When Pope Benedict travels to England in September, to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a similar question will arise. Cardinal Newman has been venerated widely by Catholics since his death in 1890. Millions of the faithful have longed for his canonization for many years. Yet Cardinal Newman was declared “Venerable” (that is the Church determined that he had lived all of the virtues heroically, only in 1991), and after that his cause was delayed because there was no confirmed physical miracle which could be attributed to him.
A miracle which is clearly attributable to someone’s intercession is God’s testimony that that soul truly is in heaven. There had been thousands of spiritual miracles already -- conversions inspired by Cardinal Newman’s example and writings -- but the Church looks for physical miracles, because these can be more clearly verified.
The longed-for miracle took place on Aug. 15, 2001, when Deacon Jack Sullivan, a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston, was suddenly and inexplicably cured of a crippling spinal injury after he prayed to Cardinal Newman for help. After the miracle’s confirmation, Pope Benedict took a personal interest in expediting Cardinal Newman’s cause. Ordinarily a pope celebrates only a canonization, not a beatification. Pope Benedict’s journey to England to celebrate the beatification, therefore, shows the importance with which he regards the event for the Church.
Now, again, all of this is providential, and it falls to us to try to discern the meaning. Things will be clearer after the fact, no doubt. But a good guess would be that the delay pertains to the education of Catholics.
Cardinal Newman is the great example in our time of the harmony of faith and reason, and the great exponent of the harmony of these in education. Yet these types of harmony are crucially important at a time when the Church emphasizes the universal call to holiness for all laypersons.
“I want a laity,” Cardinal Newman wrote, “not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity -- You ought to be able ... to expose to the comprehension of others the fictions and fallacies of ... the charges brought against the Church.”
Very few schools and universities impart such an education. Let’s hope that in God’s providence not simply Cardinal Newman’s life but also his plan of education becomes for Catholics a new “standard.”
Michael Pakaluk’s latest book is “The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God” on the life of Ruth V.K. Pakaluk.