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Saints: Simple and Complex

ROME (Thursday April 24) – A saint is ultimately a humble and simple figure, but the making of saints is a large and complex task. That reality is already being verified in Rome in these days.

The pilgrims to Sunday’s dual canonization are beginning to trickle in. While outside of Rome estimates say that from 1- to 3-million people will show up on Sunday, projections here are more modest: “only” 800,000-900,000, and 6,000 tour buses are known to be on the way – even those, though, are no small logistical challenge for a place as used to such events as the Holy City.

The secular (read anti-Catholic) papers in Italy are reporting estimated costs for the canonizations have mushroomed absurdly, without looking much into why: we’re told that costs are rising from just 1.8-million Euros in March, to 4.7-million three weeks ago, to just under 7-million today. Is this just the reflection of good governance? Two-thousand security agents are scheduled to be in place at St. Peter’s this weekend, where a “Red Zone” has blocked out a large area around the Vatican. The complaint among the secularists is that the Vatican is only promising half-a-million Euros towards expected costs. But this says nothing about economic benefits to the city.

All the financial controversies, however, pale beside the ideological struggles that seem to be growing even faster than estimated costs. We knew beforehand that a weekend in which John XXIII and JPII would become saints would be several days of intense contention. The ugliness – and bone headedness – of the controversy will become even clearer as days wear on.

Jockeying to establish various interpretations and to introduce new narratives has gone on in the last few days. One of the most shocking came from Cardinal Carlo Caffara, who claims that the whole magisterial legacy of JPII, which was asserted vigorously over almost thirty years, is more and more “rejected, as if it did not exist.” And among the key points of that legacy was the overthrow of the Communist bloc, the effort to re-establish Christianity in Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, and – of greatest relevance at the moment – the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage by the pope/moral theologian, John Paul II.

Perhaps because JPII is closer and more potent in memory, several secular critics have trotted out the old chestnut that the making of saints is a political act. Certainly, it is an act with political and social and cultural and – would you think? – perhaps even religious implications. But this attempt to derail the recognition of certain figures as saints – and perhaps emblematic figures for our days and all days – is itself far more political and nakedly cynical than anything the Vatican is doing. Try as you might, Papa Roncalli and Papa Wojtyla remain significant historical presences, which remind us of the continuing significance of Catholicism on the world stage.

The liberals are not saying, for example, that Catholicism in America and North America has declined since John XXIII’s efforts to make the Faith even more effective in the modern world. That’s a telling omission. They’re very concerned about JPII’s failure to fix the sexual-abuse crisis, a serious problem. But did the self-secularization of the Church and all the problems that followed from that flow from John XXIII? It’s as if they never occurred. Or if they did, they were simply the growing pains of an institution that had to adapt to the modern world.  Why? Because secular people said Catholics had to so “adapt.”

Catholics, real Catholics, may have a different perspective. Ideologies are potent in our day, because we have no real thought – about anything really serious. We understand very well that the poor must be helped – and who doesn’t? But we also know that the world already knows precisely that, and exploits the fact. We Catholics also have to say the hard things, the ones that cost people personally, that do not dump off a responsibility to political parties and unending ideological debates.   

One of the things, perhaps, most overlooked in all this talk of the new saints to be recognized this weekend is the way that the Church has been a force for advancing the humble, even in worldly terms. In pre-modern times, popes necessarily had to come from the ranks of the highly educated and mostly privileged classes. But John XXIII was from a poor farming family – one of thirteen children. He used to joke that there are three ways to go to ruin: drink, gambling, and farming, “and my father took the most boring.” Long before affirmative action, his sheer intelligence and application took him, through Church channels, very quickly from an obscure village in Northern Italy to diplomatic leadership posts in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and France for the Vatican diplomatic corps; then to Venice, and finally the papacy.

John Paul II was the child of a single-parent family: his father, a retired military officer had to raise him after the death of his mother. Karol Wojtyla found his way, not only though the very unfavorable structures of sin called Communism, but even through an unfair social system that sent him to work in a quarry and a chemical factory, before his natural gifts – including those as a poet and actor – drew him along a different path.

We will hear a lot of ideological nonsense in the coming days. But let us who do not put our trust in princes, look at these great men, these holy men, with different eyes. Men who somehow were able to rise from nothing to everything – and even beyond “everything,” as that is understood in the modern world.

The news and even the reality in Rome tend towards reinforcing us in a belief that nothing for us, in our personal lives, can really change. The witness of these two lives says something quite else, whatever the most typical news reports may say.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.