The ‘process of sainting’

A history of canonised Popes

Pope Pius IX, the 19th-Century autocrat who lost the Papal City States to the Italian nationalists, retreated to the Vatican, pouted for decades, and abominated everything we call enlightened modern thinking, is not at the top of the list of ‘canonisable’ Pontiffs compiled by progressive Catholics.

Pope Pius XII, the 20th-Century Successor of St Peter who remains endlessly embroiled in controversies around his alleged silence during the Holocaust, has created more than a few papal migraines as his successors struggle to navigate the risky shoals of Jewish-Catholic rapprochement at the same time as they manage the progress of his cause for sainthood.

It will be some time  yet before either or both of the two Piuses will be ‘raised to the altars’ or officially declared saints – stalled on the tracks of sanctification as they are –but two other popes are moving along nicely scheduled to be sainted by Pope Francis on April 27 with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in attendance.

Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are larger than life Roman Shepherds.  In many ways, they re-shaped the papacy; they commanded enormous affection from large swathes of the Catholic world; they generated respect among non-Catholics to unparalleled degrees; they were not allergic to exercising political clout in addition to their traditional spiritual sway; and they ushered in many innovative structural changes and doctrinal interpretations. They were both bold men.


Pope Francis’s decision to canonise them both on the same day was a master stroke, a key recognition on his part of the politics of saint-making, of the dangers of factionalism should one be preferred over the other, of the rich opportunity of using this grand display of holy theatre to unite rather than divide his restive Church.

Francis knows that every canonisation is a symbolic statement, that every canonisation is a public acknowledgement of the generative power of holiness. And he knows, especially when it involves the sainting of Popes, that it is also a statement about him. Popes after all make policy, direct the global interests of the Church via episcopal appointments and through the creation of cardinals, and publish weighty documents with various degrees of authority on matters of consequence to contemporary ecclesial life.

They also pay close attention to their predecessors, agonise over decisions that may seem to depart from the past and therefore raise the dreaded spectre of ‘discontinuity’ and try to renew and reform the papal apparatus in the bargain.  No small task irrespective the head that wears the tiara (though thankfully that papal accoutrement has been consigned permanently to the apostolic closets, despite a rare appearance during the reign of Benedict XVI).

And although Popes canonising Popes is not a regular thing over the last half millennium – it was Pius XII who broke that pattern with the sainting of Pius X in 1954—thanks to the saint-making fervour of John Paul II the list of potential papal saints has grown to include every Pope of living memory, including Paul VI and John Paul I.

Persuaded that the most effective antidote to the poison of the Marxist cult of the personality and the American obsession with celebrities was to create a grand canvas of holy ones drawn from all over the planet, a mystical mosaic of heroicity, valour unto death, and spiritual steadfastness in times of trial, John Paul II changed the rule book that had been in place since 1735.  With one stroke – the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law and the publication of his apostolic constitution Divinus perfectionis Magister in 1983 – the landscape changed.


The process of sainting now moved from an adversarial model with promoters of the cause and devil’s advocates duking it out to an historical/biographical model with a greater emphasis on the investigative phase. This streamlined and less confrontational mode resulted in an unending spate of new candidates. 

By the time of his death John Paul had beatified (the penultimate stage in the sainting dynamic) 1,330 and canonised some 480. British novelist Hilary Mantel put it succinctly when she observed that during the John Paul II pontificate “saints are fast-tracked to the top and there are beatifications by the bucket-load”.

Now it is his turn.

Following the handsome display of contrived spontaneity – the santo subito mantra that swept through the crowds gathered for his funeral Mass in St Peter’s Square – John Paul’s own cause for sainthood was immediately fast tracked by his successor.  What John Paul had done for Mother Teresa – expedite the process by waiving the time requirement between the candidate’s death and the introduction of the cause for sainthood – Benedict would do for his predecessor.

Indeed, Francis would waive one of the required miracles in the case of John XXIII.  Popes can do that.  And it had taken them a while to consolidate their control over the making of saints.  Alexander III in 1170 made a major push to remind those who think otherwise that canonisation was a pontifical privilege.  And in 1234 Gregory IX sealed the deal by “expressly and exclusively” reserving the right of canonisation to the Holy See.

Making saints ever since has been a papal business.  Making Popes saints even more so.

Michael W. Higgins is a Professor of Religious Studies and Vice-President of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT.  He is also the author of the national bestseller Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making and of the CBC Radio One IDEAS series of Stalking the Holy: The Politics of Saint-Making