Skip to main content

Why does a pope become a saint?

By David M. Perry, Special to CNN
July 5, 2013 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
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
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT