Newsweek magazine this week had a squib (a short article) about the politics of making saints, and in particular, the making of American saints. Apparently, they’re still waiting on second miracles from folks like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul.
The idea of making saints seems rather quaint in this day and age, perhaps because it depends upon a belief in miracles. Popes are encouraged to hold back and not make very many saints, to preserve that special allure. The last thing you want is for a saint to be demoted, like poor Saint Barbara, if someone supplies evidence that one of the miracles was invalid.
In order for a holy individual to make it all the way to sainthood, he or she must first be recognized for some great works or devotion. Such a person might earn the title “Venerable”. After that, if a miracle or vision is associated with him or her after death, the process moves up to “beatified”–the stage at which both Teresa and John Paul are stalled. In order to make it all the way, and be acknowledged as dwelling in Heaven, two genuine posthumous miracles must be associated with the deceased.
I was intrigued by the fact that the miracles must be posthumous. What if the holy individual was associated with miraculous healing prior to death? Apparently such miracles are considered to be an intervention of God through that person, rather than an effect of his or her own holiness. Nowadays, it must be proven that the recipient of the miracle was actually sick, and was cured through interaction with the proposed saint: prayers, visits to the gravesite, etc.
In many areas, holy people were venerated shortly after death, with chapels, churches, cults and offerings made in their name based on a local reputation for holiness and healing. Local priests and bishops might encourage this practice because it brought fame, pilgrims, and possibly patrons who gave money to support the nascent cult. During the early Middle Ages, the Church started to crack down on local saints, with papal legates trying to either convince locals that their saint wasn’t valid, or to submit the claims to the Church at Rome to be examined.
In modern times, the Church seems a bit squeamish about the issue of sainthood. Like those local clerics, they like the fame and fortune arising from declarations of holiness, but they must be careful about the presentation of miracles in a scientifically-minded world. Then, too, the last few centuries have discouraged the display and veneration of relics to quite the same degree they had been before, especially in America. American Catholics may be excited about new possible American saints, but they may also feel reticent to embrace the ancient practice of sending bits of the dead out to churches, and almost nobody carries their own reliquaries any more. (Which makes me think of an idea for a story. . . which is what I’m all about!)