Calling someone a saint does not mean condoning all of their actions or words, it means admiring them as people, holy but imperfect, who loved God and had faith in an often difficult world.
On Friday, Pope Francis announced the canonization of John Paul II, who led the Roman Catholic Church as pope from 1978 until his death in 2005, after a second miracle was attributed to his intervention. His beatification (a major step toward sainthood, through which one gains the title “Blessed”) by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2011 was the fastest in modern times. Normally, the process toward canonization does not begin until at least five years after a person’s death. Most of the time, Catholics do not get to see a person who was alive and active in their own lifetime be made a saint.
For many, John Paul II’s canonization is a welcome announcement. From the time of his death in 2005, crowds in St. Peter’s Square shouted “Santo Subito!” (Saint Now in Italian) for their beloved pope, the first Polish pope ever and the first non-Italian pope since 1523. He also was the most widely traveled pope in history, saying mass for the faithful all over the world, even when ill with Parkinson’s disease.
However, John Paul II’s canonization is also met with a more tepid reaction by other Catholics. He re-affirmed the ban on women’s ordination with his 1994 encyclical Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. His 1995 Letter to Women, written on the eve of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, was praised by many for its expression of appreciation for the contributions women have made to the Catholic Church and to society, as well as its condemnation of discrimination against women in education, the workplace, and other sectors. Yet, his espousal of gender complementarity was a point of contention for many who feel that the idea that certain essential, unchangeable characteristics belong to men and women, sends a dangerous message to and excludes those who do not fit traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Furthermore, John Paul II’s papacy was plagued by the church sex-abuse scandal, and he was often criticized for his leniency toward the founder of the movement Legion of Christ, Marcial Maciel, who was found to have abused several boys and fathered six children from relationships with at least two women.
Yet, the mixed reactions that the canonization of John Paul II has received, perhaps, give credence to the true meaning of the term “saint” in the Catholic Church. Saints are not God. Saints are not perfect. They were regular human beings like you and I, who ate, drank, laughed, cried, were liked by some, and shunned by others. Saints are like spiritual role models. We pray for their intercession. They show us that we can be both sinners but also holy people who hold a deep, personal relationship with God. Also, although not officially canonized, Catholics consider all who have gone before us to be part of the communion of saints.
As a feminist Catholic, many people ask me if I feel angry at the prospect of John Paul II’s canonization. I answer with a resounding “No.” Of course, I must admit that I respectfully disagreed with John Paul’s stance on women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and gender complementarity. Yet, I know not every Catholic feels the same way I do, some agreed whole-heartedly with John Paul II’s views. However, that does not mean that John Paul II cannot be a role-model for both progressive Catholics like myself and more traditional Catholics. He forgave the man who shot him in Saint Peter’s Square in 1981, and visited him in prison. As a young seminarian during World War II, he carried a thirteen year old Jewish girl named Edith Zirer through the snow to safety, saving her life. He learned many foreign languages, preaching and comforting faithful Catholics all over the world. He had many characteristics that both Catholics and non-Catholics, liberals and conservatives, want to emulate. Calling someone a saint does not mean condoning all of their actions or words, it means admiring them as people, holy but imperfect, who loved God and had faith in an often difficult world. I think many Catholic will be overjoyed to see someone they knew personally, rather than just through history books, become a saint.
Photo: AP/Plinio Lepri