How the saints get that way

Monday Book Review

January 20, 1992|By John Plunkett

MAKING SAINTS: HOW THE CATHOLIC CHURCH DETERMINES WHO BECOMES A SAINT, WHO DOESN'T, AND WHY. By Kenneth L. Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $12.

ALTHOUGH ALL world religions have some concept of sainthood, only the Roman Catholic Church has a formal, continuous and highly rationalized process for "making saints," according to author Kenneth Woodward in this scholarly examination of canonization.

Identifying the singularly holy has taken various forms since the time of the first Christian martyrs. Yet the standards of sanctity have remained surprisingly uniform. Saints have been adopted as national patrons (St. Patrick and St. George) and as protectors of occupations and causes. They are regularly called upon in prayer to intercede with God and perform miracles.

Traditionally, formal canonization required the performance of several miracles. However, in a sweeping reform in 1983, Pope John Paul II halved the number required in the saint-making process. Now only one miracle is needed for beatification (a preliminary to canonization) and only one additional miracle for full sainthood.

In the same reform, the centuries-old function of devil's advocate, in which the arguments against canonization of a candidate were pressed, was eliminated to save time and money. One result is that during the reign of the present pope the church has beatified and canonized more individuals than during any other pontificate.

Although one main objective of canonization is the elevation of models for imitation by the faithful, ordinary laymen and lay women are seldom canonized. "Between the year 1000 and the end of 1987," Mr. Woodward points out, "popes held 303 canonizations, including group causes. Of these saints, only 56 were laymen and 20 were lay women. Moreover, of the 63 lay saints whose state of life is known for certain, more than half never married."

Among other slighted groups were popes and cardinals (only six of the latter have been canonized since 1588.) Men outnumber women two-to-one but the many female founders of orders of nuns elevated in recent years are changing the ratio.

The author examines in some detail cases of individuals proposed for canonization, including Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero, New York's Archbishop Cooke (his supporters may have killed his chances by their unseemly haste), Edith Stein, Cardinal Newman, Therese of Lisieux and Padre Pio.

Modern saints named by the church are always Catholics. Although members of other denominations have advocated non-Catholics for sainthood -- the Lutherans once proposed anti-Nazi cleric Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- none has ever been accepted by the Vatican.

The book also contains brief biographies of some famous and not-so-famous holy men of Christianity, including St. Thomas of Cantelupe, who was canonized in 1320 and exhibited such a devotion to poverty and chastity that he refused to bathe after he became bishop of Hereford and declined to embrace his own sisters. (One wonders if they cared.)

Today the preliminaries to canonization are in the hands of the 400-year-old Congregation for the Causes of Saints which occupies offices near St. Peter's Square. Mr. Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek, spent many months interviewing members of the congregation and some of the scores of consultants, theologians, physicians and other specialists who assist them.

What he discovered in his conversations and the examination of a large quantity of documents makes fascinating reading.

This book could be the most comprehensive, and certainly most readable, work on canonization ever written. It contains a rare look at the inner workings of the Roman Catholic Church, its history, politics and personalities. It also has excellent notes, a bibliography and a first-class index.

John Plunkett is a retired assistant managing editor of The Sun.

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