A Reflection by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, C.M.F.
Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints
Solemnity of All Saints’ Day is November 1st
The lives of the saints show the world “the divine in the human, the eternal in time”
1. “All it takes to make a man a saint is Grace. Anyone who doubts this knows neither what makes a saint nor a man”, Pascal observes in Pensées with his characteristic trenchant style. I start with this observation to point out the dual perspective of these reflections: in the saint the celebration of God (indeed, of his Grace) combines with the celebration of man, with his potential and his limitations, his aspirations and his achievements.
The many objections today to the concepts of “holiness” and “saint” are well known. Much criticism is also levelled at the Church for her traditional and uninterrupted practice of recognizing and proclaiming some of her most outstanding children as “saints”. Some have insinuated that the special importance John Paul II has given to beatifications and canonizations and the great number of them during his pontificate might mask an expansionist policy of the Catholic Church. Others consider that the proposal of new blesseds and saints from such different backgrounds, nationalities and cultures is merely a ploy to market holiness, to assure the leadership of the papacy in contemporary society. Lastly, some see canonizations and the devotion to saints as an anachronism left over from religious triumphalism, foreign or even contrary to the spirit and dictates of the Second Vatican Council, which placed so great an emphasis on the vocation to holiness of all Christians.
It is obvious that an exclusively sociological interpretation of this subject would risk not only being reductive but also misleading for an understanding of the phenomenon, which is so much a feature of the Catholic Church.
Holiness, a living reflection of the face of Christ
2. In the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte which the Pope presented to the Church at the end of Jubilee Year 2000, he places profound emphasis on the topic of holiness. Among the “great host of saints and martyrs” which includes “Popes well-known to history or to humble lay and religious figures, from one continent to another of the globe”, “Holiness”, John Paul II notes in his Letter, “has emerged more clearly as the dimension which expresses best the mystery of the Church. Holiness, a message that convinces without the need for words, is the living reflection of the face of Christ” (n. 7).
To understand the Church, we need to be acquainted with the saints who are her most eloquent sign, her sweetest fruit. To contemplate the face of Christ in the changing, diversified situations of the modern world we must look at the saints who are “the living reflection of the face of Christ”, as the Pope reminds us. The Church must proclaim the saints and she must do so in the name of that proclamation of holiness that fills her and makes her, precisely, a means of sanctification in the world.
“God shows to men, in a vivid way, his presence and his face in the lives of those companions of ours in the human condition who are more perfectly transformed into the image of Christ (cf. II Cor 3: 18). He speaks to us in them, and offers us a sign of his kingdom, to which we are powerfully attracted, so great a cloud of witnesses is there given (cf. Heb 12: 1) and such a witness to the truth of the Gospel” (Lumen Gentium, n. 50). In this passage from Lumen Gentium we discover the profound reason for the devotion to blesseds and saints.
Saints show that Life in Christ is possible for all
3. The Church carries out the mission the divine Teacher entrusted to her to be an instrument of holiness through evangelization, the sacraments and the practice of charity. This mission also receives a substantial contribution to its content and spiritual incentives from the proclamation of the blesseds and saints, for they show that holiness is accessible to the multitudes, that holiness can be imitated. Their personal and historical reality allows people to experience that the Gospel and new life in Christ are neither a utopia nor a mere system of values, but “leaven” and “salt” that can bring to life the Christian faith, within and from within the different cultures, geographical areas and historical epochs.
“The future of human beings” the late Cardinal Giuseppe Siri remarked, “is never clear, for all their sins corrode all the paths of history and lead to an intricate dialectic of cause and effect, error and nemesis, explosions and interruptions. The certainty that the saints will continue to accompany people is one of the few guarantees of the future” (Il Primato della Verità, 154).
Holiness knows no bounds and is alive and well in the Church
4. The phenomenon of the saints and of Christian holiness gives rise to a sense of wonder that has always existed in the Church and cannot but amaze even an attentive lay observer, especially today in a world continuously and rapidly changing, culturally fragmented in values as well as in customs. From wonder is born the question: what makes faith incarnate in all the latitudes, in the different historical contexts, in the most varied categories and walks of life? How, without the dynamics of power, enforced or persuasive, can there be so many saints, so different yet so consonant with Christ and with the Church? What is it that impels people freely to accept the fertile seed of Christianity that subsequently develops into such diversity and beauty in the unity of holiness? What a difference there is between globalization, such a buzzword today, and the catholicity or universality of the Christian faith and of the Church which lives, preserves and spreads that faith!
The international scope of Catholicism, not sought for power but for service and salvation, is confirmed by the saints, men and women who come from the most varied historical backgrounds.
This international dimension confirms that holiness knows no bounds and that in the Church it is far from dead; indeed, it continues to be vitally up to date. The world is changing, yet the saints, while changing with the changing world, always represent the same living face of Christ. Isn’t this an unmistakeable clue to the unique vitality, half cultural and half historical – “supernatural” is the right word for us Catholics – of the proclamation and of Christian Grace?
John Paul II has beatified 1,299 persons and canonized 464
5. In the context of these thoughts, a comment on how the Catholic Church recognizes and proclaims blesseds and saints will be of interest. I am referring specifically to the work of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, called to study and to recognize holiness and holy persons through a meticulous and prudent procedure, reinforced, renewed and renewable in time.
Saints and holiness are recognized in an upward movement from the bottom to the top. Still today, it is Christians themselves who, recognizing the “odour of holiness” by an intuition of faith, point out candidates for canonization to their Bishop – who is responsible for taking the first step in the process of canonization – and, subsequently, to the competent dicastery of the Holy See. Neither the Congregation for the Causes of Saints nor the Pope “invent” or “fabricate” saints. The Holy Spirit has already singled them out, as all believers know well. This same Spirit – as the Gospel says – “breathes wherever he wills”, an observation to which we have grown accustomed down through the centuries, especially today, since the Church has spread in every part of the world and to every social class.
This said, it should be recognized that Pope John Paul II has made the proclamation of new blesseds and saints an authentic and constant means of evangelization and teaching. He has wished to accompany the preaching of truth and of the Gospel values with the presentation of saints who lived those truths and values in an exemplary way. In the course of his pontificate, from 1978 until today, John Paul II has beatified 1,299 persons, 1,029 of whom were martyrs, while he has canonized 464, of whom 401 were martyrs. The numbers of lay people he has raised to the honour of the altars are far more numerous than one would think: in fact, 268 blesseds and 246 saints, 514 lay persons in all.
Some people consider this to be many, for others, it is few.
With regard to the number of saints, John Paul II does not ignore the opinion of those who think these are too many. Indeed, the Pope mentions this explicitly. This is his response: “It is sometimes said that there are too many beatifications today. However, in addition to reflecting reality, which by God’s grace is what it is, it also responds to the desire expressed by the Council. The Gospel is so widespread in the world and its message has sunk such deep roots that the great number of beatifications vividly reflects the action of the Holy Spirit and the vitality flowing from Him in the Church’s most essential sphere, that of holiness. Indeed, it was the Council that put particular emphasis on the universal call to holiness” (Opening Address to the Extraordinary Consistory in Preparation for Jubilee Year 2000, 13-14 June 1994; ORE, 22 June 1994, p. 8, n. 10).
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II wrote: “In recent years the number of canonizations and beatifications has increased. These show the vitality of the local Churches, which are much more numerous today than in the first centuries and in the first millennium. The greatest homage which all the Churches can give to Christ on the threshold of the third millennium will be to manifest the Redeemer’s all-powerful presence through the fruits of faith, hope and charity, present in men and women of many different tongues and races who have followed Christ in the various forms of the Christian vocation” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, n. 37).
In the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, the Pope also notes: “The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has enabled me to beatify and canonize a large number of Christians, and among them many lay peole who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 31).
Of course, all these beatifications and canonizations are also a sign of the capacity for inculturation in the life of the Christian faith and of the Church.
Historical truth sparks wider interest in the lives of saints
6. I would like, lastly, to reflect on the cultural contribution made by the saints, by the devotions to them, and by the fervent and serious examination that precedes and accompanies their canonization.
The Second Vatican Council asked that a “careful investigation – theological, historical, and pastoral” – should always be made concerning the proposal of the devotion to saints (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 23). This instruction found the Congregation for the Causes of Saints already prepared, and today it has been fully tested.
The concern for historical truth was always a feature of the work of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Already a “Decree” of Pius X of 26 August 1913, later set forth in the Code of Canon law of 1917, required the collection and examination of all the historical documents concerning the causes. But the fundamental innovation was contributed by the Motu Proprio “Già da Qualche Tempo” (“Already for Some Time”) of 6 February 1930, with which Pius XI established the “Historical Section” for the Congregation of Rites, with the role of making an effective contribution to the treatment of “historical” causes, that is, those without contemporary testimonies of the facts in question. The service rendered later by the “Historical Section”, known from 1969 as the “Historical-Hagiographical Office”, was extended to all the causes, even “recent” ones, increasing historical-critical sensitivity at all levels and in all the stages of the process. Lastly, the Apostolic Constitution “Divinus Perfectionis Magister” of 25 January 1983, followed by “Normae Servandae” of 7 February 1983, definitively sanctioned the specific contribution of method and historical quality in the treatment of the causes of saints.
The historical truth, so diligently sought for theological and pastoral motives, was also helpful in the cultural presentation of the saints. The new blesseds and saints “have come out into the limelight” to be examined and presented also as historically significant personages, a very integral part of the life of their Church, their society and their time. Interest in them is therefore no longer restricted to the Church and believers, but now extends to all who are interested in history, culture, civil life, politics, pedagogy, etc. In this way, the mission of these extraordinary people of God continues in a different yet effective way for the good of the whole of society. It is significant in this regard that it is no longer only “authorized ecclesiastics” who consult the archives of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but also lay scholars who do research there for their doctoral theses, for historical, pedagogical, sociological studies, etc., because they find a wealth of historically reliable material.
‘The divine in the human, the eternal in time’
7. Therefore holiness, with its own special quality, also affects culture. The saints have made it possible to create new cultural models, new responses to the problems and great challenges of peoples, new developments for humanity on its way through history. On various occasions the Holy Father has stressed that the heritage of the saints “must not be lost; we should always be thankful for it and we should renew our resolve to imitate it” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 7).
The saints are like beacons; they show men and women the possibilities open to human beings. They are therefore also culturally interesting, independently of the cultural, religious or investigatory approach to them. A great 19th-century French philosopher, Henri Bergson, observed that “the greatest historical figures are not the conquerors but the saints”. Whereas Jean Delumeau, a historian specializing in 16th-century Catholicism, invited his readers to note that the great revivals of Christian history were marked by a return to the sources, that is, to the holiness of the Gospel, brought about by the saints and by movements of holiness in the Church.
In recent times, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quite correctly asserted that: “It is not the sporadic majorities which form in the Church here and there that determine the path she and we will take. The saints are the true, crucial majority, and it is from them that we take our bearings. Let us stick to them! They express the divine in the human, the eternal in time”.
In the Church everything is at the service of holiness
8. In a changing world, not only are the saints not historically or culturally displaced, but – I think I must conclude – they are becoming an even more interesting and reliable subject. In an age of the collapse of collective utopias, in an age of indifference and the lack of appetite for all that is theoretical and ideological, new attention is being paid to the saints, unique figures in whom is found not a theory nor even merely a moral, but a plan of life to be recounted, to be discovered through study, to be loved with devotion, to be put into practice with imitation.
We cannot but be delighted at the revival of attention to the saints, because the saints belong to everyone; they are a heritage of humanity that has outdone itself in a development which, while honouring man, also gives glory to God, because “the glory of God is man alive” (St Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, IV, 20: 7).
I would like to interpret everything reflected on here in the light of a truly engaging message of the Holy Father John Paul II. In my opinion, this message can give those who are reflecting on the subject at least an idea of the Supreme Pontiff’s vision of holiness, inseparably linked to the baptismal dignity of every Christian. Thus, it can also explain better the role of the beatifications and canonizations in the pastoral journey of the Church during the 25 years of Karol Wojtyła’s pontificate. It is the Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations in 2002: “The main task of the Church is to lead Christians along the path of holiness…. The Church is the “home of holiness’, and the charity of Christ, poured out by the Holy Spirit, is her soul” (Message for the 39th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 21 April 2002, nn. 1 and 2; ORE, 5 December 2001, p. 3).
In the Church, therefore, everything and particularly every vocation, is at the service of holiness! It is undoubtedly in this sense that when we look at the Church we must never forget to see in her the face of the “mother of saints”, who brings forth a fruitful and magnanimous superabundance of holiness.
~ Taken from:
L’Osservatore Romano (newspaper of the Holy See)
Weekly Edition in English
16 April 2003