Saints Be Praised—Officially or Otherwise

Catholics have the most rigorous process for naming them, but even Protestants have informal ones.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2013.

When Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII are canonized as saints later this year, the world will be reminded that there is no other Christian tradition approaching Catholicism’s rigorous process of naming saints. The Vatican administers an internal process that includes a “devil’s advocate,” a lawyer dedicated to making the case against the candidate’s sanctity, and the requirement of two verified miracles attributed to the deceased. (Saints always are deceased—the church borrows the Greek maxim, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” and applies it to holiness as well.)

Even the Vatican’s strictness on sainthood may be easing, however. When the coming canonizations were announced last month, Pope Francis waived the miracles requirement for John XXIII. But the church still remains unique in its sainthood practices.

The only non-Catholic denomination that has something like it is the Eastern Orthodox church, whose worshippers bestow a kiss on the icons that crowd the sanctuary, greeting them like members of their family. For Catholics the saints are “up there,” well placed to whisper special requests in the divine ear. For the Eastern Orthodox, the saints are “right here,” surprisingly intimate presences in the earthly church.

Saints are bracing reminders that the transformation of spirit promised by religion—so elusive for most of us—is possible in this life.

Most Protestants, meanwhile, blanch at the idea of granting human beings this much reverence. Some, like the ultra-Protestant Plymouth Brethren, aim to eliminate all such distinctions. Recalling that the Apostle Paul addressed whole congregations as “saints” in his letters, they take the position that all are “brethren,” none more sanctified than the next.

And yet even the most ardent Protestants seem to end up with informal saints, figures who play an outsize role in memory and aspiration. Often they are founders of significant movements—John and Charles Wesley’s names are never far from the minds of serious Methodists, and John Calvin has been the subject of a recent, and surprising, revival among Southern Baptists.

The Eastern Orthodox may have icons, but Americans have T-shirts—one of which carries the visage of a Puritan theologian with the words, “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.” Evangelists like Billy Graham, for conservative Christians, or activists like Daniel Berrigan, for progressive ones, become revered figures even in their lifetimes, embodying everything these believers hope to become.

One quick, if not easy, path to acquiring saintly renown has always been martyrdom, the willingness to die for one’s beliefs and with love for enemies on one’s lips. The 20th-century martyr Jim Elliot, killed in 1956 with a spear by indigenous people in Ecuador (a tribe that largely later converted to Christianity), is still a model for many evangelical Christians, thanks in part to the book about him, “Shadow of the Almighty,” written by his young widow, Elisabeth. (Well-told biographies are crucial ingredients in both the formal and informal versions of canonization.) The martyrdom of 813 15th-century Italians inspired their canonization in May by Pope Francis; they were slaughtered for refusing demands by Turkish invaders that they convert to Islam.

Saints, whether formally recognized by Catholicism or informally regarded as such by other denominations, are bracing reminders that the transformation of spirit promised by religion—so elusive for most of us—is possible in this life. Christians of any kind can appreciate the remarkable lives of the two men the Catholic Church will canonize later this year.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born a peasant in Lombard, became in 1958 the wise and generous “Good Pope” John XXIII, opening up the Catholic Church to the modern world. Karol Wojtyla, a young playwright living under the harsh rule of communist Poland, eventually played a pivotal part as Pope John Paul II in the collapse of that degrading system.

Saints like these suggest that there is more to life, and to faith, than most of us dare to know. A century-old aphorism attributed to the French essayist Charles Péguy perhaps says it best: “Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have become a saint.”