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 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT