Skip to main content

Why does a pope become a saint?

By David M. Perry, Special to CNN
updated 5:34 PM EDT, Fri July 5, 2013
The Roman Catholic Church will declare <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/02/world/pope-john-paul-ii-fast-facts/index.html'>Pope John Paul II</a> a saint, the Vatican announced Friday, July 5. The Polish-born pope, pictured in 1978, was fast-tracked to beatification after his death in 2005 and was declared "blessed" barely six years later -- the fastest beatification in centuries. Here's a look at the <a href='http://www.catholicnews.com/jpii/stories/story16.htm' target='_blank'>most widely traveled pope</a> and his journeys around the world: The Roman Catholic Church will declare Pope John Paul II a saint, the Vatican announced Friday, July 5. The Polish-born pope, pictured in 1978, was fast-tracked to beatification after his death in 2005 and was declared "blessed" barely six years later -- the fastest beatification in centuries. Here's a look at the most widely traveled pope and his journeys around the world:
HIDE CAPTION
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Perry: Pope Francis announced the canonization of two predecessors
  • He says John XXIII's Vatican II was "divine" work, so Francis required only one miracle
  • People used to become saints by popular acclamation. Papacy controlled process later, he says
  • Perry: In canonizing one conservative, one liberal pope, Francis sends unifying message

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- On Friday, Pope Francis announced the canonization of two of his predecessors: Pope John Paul II (pope from 1978 to 2005) and Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). That John-Paul II, whose pontificate dominated the late 20th century, is on a fast-track to sainthood should not come as a surprise.

At his death in 2005, the crowds chanted, "Santo subito!" (sainthood now!). The Vatican verified his first miracle, the curing of a French nun of Parkinson's, from which he also suffered, just two months after his death. He was beatified in 2011 and his second miracle, the healing of a Costa Rican woman with an aneurism after her family prayed at one of his shrines, was ratified that same year.

David Perry
David Perry

John XXIII's canonization, however, was not on the radar, but it makes sense. John presided over the Second Vatican Council, the great midcentury meeting that completely transformed modern Catholicism, and which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Pope Francis has emphasized the divine nature of this council's work frequently over the last few months and has waived the requirement that two miracles be credited to his intervention.

A Vatican spokesman emphasized that because "no one doubts" John's holiness, Pope Francis has decided to move forward with the dual canonization. (Early Italian reports suggest December 8, a Sunday this year, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as the most likely date.)

Why does a pope become a saint? At its most basic, Catholics believe, a saint is a holy person through whom God intervenes after his or her death to aid the living. Over the first 1,500 years of Catholic history, people generally became saints through popular acclamation rather than through a formal papal process. While there were some saints who were celebrated across the Christian world, the vast majority received only local or regional veneration.

As with so many other Catholic procedures, the reform movements in the medieval papacy gradually asserted control of the process of canonization. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V instituted the "Sacred Congregation of Rites," a body intended to take complete charge of all processes of beatification and canonization.

Sainthood happens in 'God's time'
2011: John Paul II's path to sainthood

However, local communities and religious leaders have always sought to promote their local holy men and women as saints, and often started venerating people regardless of official Vatican sanction. Pope John Paul II, in fact, oversaw the canonization of more people (483) than had been canonized in the previous 500 years, in part to lend the weight of Vatican authority to saints that had emerged throughout the global Catholic world.

Seventy-eight of the 265 popes have been saints, which may seem like a large number, but this includes 52 out of the first 54 popes. After the sixth century, the rate of papal canonization rapidly decreased. By the time of the great medieval reform movements, most popes did not become saints and were not expected to do so, as sanctity became reserved for those not so deeply involved in worldly affairs.

For example, Pope Celestine V may have become a saint, but he was recognized for his quiet life as a hermit, rather than for his brief life as pope (he was also an inspiration for Pope Benedict XIV's retirement). Over the modern era, pious leaders in local communities, people like Mother Teresa, and others of great piety outside the elite hierarchy were most likely to be recognized as saints. Thus, the incipient canonization of these two popes does stand out as unusual.

So what's going on in Rome? I turn back to the lessons of the history: Decisions about sanctity almost always involve considerations about local contexts and contemporary needs. John Paul II's sainthood has been promoted by many of the more conservative elements within the Catholic world. John XXIII, however, is something of a hero to more liberal groups because of his sponsorship of Vatican II.

Perhaps in linking these two pontiffs, Pope Francis is performing yet another act that emphasizes the continuity and the connections among Catholics of all kinds, a theme that has dominated his papacy so far.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Perry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 2:04 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT