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Alex Beam

It'd take a miracle and then some

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / April 18, 2008

When Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor, John Paul II, visited foreign countries, he often "carried a saint in his pocket." Sometimes more than one. So now, at the end of Benedict's six-day visit, we have every right to ask: Where are our saints?

Don't hold your breath. Benedict is no John Paul, and has proved to be especially inimical to the Polish prelate's penchant for canonization. "He thought the previous pope was doing way too many saints," says Kenneth Woodward, author of the 1990 book "Making Saints." "Benedict is not about to start doing that again."

John Paul II was wild for saints. In his 26-year pontificate, he canonized almost 500 men and women, and beatified - the step preceding sainthood - about 1,300. On Oct. 1, 2000, in a gesture redolent of a Sun Myung Moon mass wedding, John Paul made 123 saints, including the Philadelphia heiress Katharine Drexel. (Of those, 120 were Chinese Christians and missionaries.) "Those were colossal numbers, far out of proportion to any of his predecessors," says the Rev. Thomas Worcester, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross.

John Paul II not only put up big numbers, but his critics felt he often acted in haste. During a 1985 visit to the United States, he hoped to canonize the Rev. Junipero Serra of California but failed to anticipate Native Americans' objections. (Serra was canonized two years later, from Rome.) Likewise he canonized the founder of Opus Dei, Josemaría de Escrivá de Balaguer, a pal of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, and beatified the pro-Nazi Croatian cleric Alojzije Stepinac. Even John Paul's fast-track beatification of Mother Teresa was viewed as incautious, as he cast aside the traditional five-year waiting period.

Benedict, who has an academic background and bent, is slowing things down. Upon taking office, one of his first orders to the Vatican's Congregation for the Cause of Saints, a.k.a. "the saint factory," was: Not so fast. Earlier this year, the pope again issued new guidelines for saint-making, emphasizing the need for rigorous documentation of good works and miracles.

The go-slow policy will probably affect the sainthood "cause" of his predecessor. After John Paul II died, cries of "Santo Subito!" (loosely: Make him a saint now!) were heard in St. Peter's Square. Vatican officials now say his sainthood cause will proceed along traditional lines.

For the record, I like saints. In an exorbitant display of faith - or superstition? - I carried three St. Christopher medallions on a recent vacation trip. I am quite moved that Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in the place of another man at Auschwitz, is one of the patron saints of journalism. In fact, my profession has two other patron saints - St. Paul the great letter-writer and St. Francis de Sales. Maybe Benedict is on to something. The Calendar of Saints seems pretty crowded already.

So what about we Americans? Where are our saints? Worcester names three compatriots as most-likely-to-succeed in the saint sweepstakes: Dorothy Day, the charismatic founder of the Catholic Worker movement; Cardinal Terence Cooke, the former archbishop of New York; and the founder of the Knights of Columbus, the Rev. Michael McGivney of New Haven. There are special websites devoted to the causes of Cooke and McGivney. The Claretian Order has been championing the cause of Day, a lay woman who once exclaimed: "Don't call me a saint! I don't want to be dismissed that easily."

Other Americans are candidates for sainthood, of course. Until her death last year, pilgrims traveled to Worcester to visit Audrey Marie Santo, who fell into a swimming pool at the age of 3 and slipped into a coma.

The many miracles - statues and portraits deemed to have "wept" or "bled", and "bleeding" communion hosts - associated with Sato are catalogued on a website, littleaudreysanto.org, which also advances her cause for sainthood.

In New Jersey, the Sisters of Charity order has twice submitted 500-page positios, or cases, to the Vatican's Congregation of Causes, arguing for the beatification of Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, who died in 1927. "We've been around No. 70" in line for sainthood for quite a while, one of Sister Miriam's fellow religious told The New York Times last month. The Sisters of Charity hoped that Benedict's visit might open the door to beatification, the newspaper reported. But no - they would have to wait, like everyone else.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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