What Makes The Saintly?

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University

“But every religion has its magic, and what is commonly called ‘practising’ a religion is practising its magic.”  R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (1938) 

What makes a saint a saint? This may seem like an odd question with an obvious answer, but really it is not. It’s no easier to capture the saintliness of the saint than it is to capture the secret magic of the magician, the inspiring musical power of the muse, or the prophetic power of the prophet. But it’s worth the attempt.


The question bears extra weight just now, as Pope Benedict XVI has initiated the process whereby his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II, will be recognized one day as a saint. The previous Pope’s beatification on May 1st was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance, reminiscent of the more somber ritual attached to his death in 2004. John Paul II’s simple wooden coffin was removed from its temporary resting place in Saint Peter’s Basilica, placed on pubic display, after which it is to be transferred to a new crypt close to Michelangelo’s marvelous Pietà. Images of the beatified Pope are everywhere, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than at the Piazza of Saint Peter’s Basilica, where a gigantic image of the newly beatified Polish Pope dominates the oval.


We should pause to reflect on what constitutes a Christian saint, at least among those non-Protestant traditions that accept the notion of sainthood.  Who is eligible for sainthood, and where are they found?


Christians have never spoken with one voice on that topic, and indeed, saints have been drawn from very different arenas in different periods of Christian history.  Understandably enough, the earliest rolls of Christian saints were martyrs, men and women who were believed to have imitated Christ in the most literal way, by meeting a violent end in his name.


Later, when Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire and martyrdom was no longer an option, the most rigorist of Christians left the cities of the empire altogether, creating alternative forms of community as ascetics, and hermits, and still later, as monastic figures.  By the sixth century, towering figures like Saint Benedict combined all of these images in Christian characters of enormous power and influence.


A more surprising development of the late Middle Ages was the idea that a king could be a saint.  As M. Cecelia Gaposchkin demonstrates in her marvelous book, The Making of Saint Louis:  Kingship, Sanctity and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages (Cornell UP, 2009), it seems somewhat counter-intuitive too imagine a king as a saint.  Kings, after all, must wield power and must engage the tools of violence.  Kings killed the martyrs.  Kings were the corrupt officials in a hierarchy the hermits and monastics left the city to escape.  In the French case of Louis IX, the notion of saintliness was even stranger; he was, notoriously, a failed Crusader in a disastrous North African campaign.  Yet even he was sanctified.


The idea of a pope as a saint may seem more understandable to us, today.  But it is important to recall that, until the Modern period, popes were kings with standing armies, who ruled over papal states, fought wars of territorial conquest, and lost them as often as they won.  By the 1700s, Roman popes were no longer significant political players on the European stage, and so began the long process of re-describing their city as Roma Aeterna, whose power and preeminence went deeper than politics.  In that world, perhaps, a sanctified pope makes easier and better sense.  It is easy for popes today to speak in general terms about the importance of peace, as larger, more secular states wage wars.


Don’t get me wrong; it is important, and highly significant that they speak in these ways.  But, Vatican City is a strange sort of quasi-country whose leaders can rise above the common world of international politics precisely to the degree that they are not really players in that game.


Looking at the question of sainthood from the other side, what’s in it for the people who make a saint a saint?  This is actually a very important piece of the papal puzzle, and it bears recalling that Pope John Paul II oversaw the creation of more saints in his 23-year pontificate than the Roman Church produced in the previous five centuries.  Benedict XVI has continued to grease the wheels of this machine.  So clearly, something is going on.


At the crassest level, there’s a lot of money to be made in the saint business.  Local economies are stimulated by the construction of new sanctuaries and all of their attendant structures, and still more by the inevitable pilgrimage traffic such new saints and their sanctuaries inspire.  And not only the local economies—the ecclesial economy gets a boost from the saints as well.  Many a Christian has been inspired to give to the Church under the influence of the enthusiasm of having a saint recognized in his or her proverbial backyard.


There are more elevated interests served by the saints, to be sure.  They are–or rather, some of them are—much like the bodhisattvas, poets and other spiritual luminaries whose main purpose seems to be to remind the rest of us of the elusive yet seductive transparency whereby this world grants us subtle epiphanies of another.  They are the tuning fork for life’s harp, the singers of the song.  The saints are intended as an especially profound Catholic example of such music.


As Pope Benedict XVI himself put it recently, “the saints are those who best speak of God and bear witness to his love, giving life to lasting experiences… Saints combine their example with their words which makes them convincing” (this was in a speech delivered in San Marino-Montefeltro on June 19).


The saint is imagined as especially convincing.  And that power of persuasion has a lot to do with the modern media. John Paul II was many things, after all, but Rumi or Sant Francis he was not (his short-lived predecessor, John Paul I, seemed more in that line… dearly beloved, speaking of God as mother as well as father, and gone in just a month).


No, the images that come to mind in John Paul II’s case are less “spiritual” than that, somehow.  One thinks of his uncommon physical energy—the skiing, the hiking, the endless traveling.  One thinks of his uncommon sense of timing—meeting with, and forgiving, his would-be assassin. And then one is reminded of the tragic counterpoint to that, the faltering step and quivering hands of his failing later years.


In short, John Paul II was the first media-savvy pope.  The camera loved him and he clearly loved the camera.  Like the actor who knows his or her best features and knows which profile to favor, John Paul II knew how to present himself and his papacy in the best possible light.  He had a knack for seeming modern, even when his positions were most aggressively aimed against the modern age, and the Second Vatican Council’s spirited “new openness” to that age.


So what does Benedict XVI see in his predecessor that suggests saintliness here?  In a word, John Paul II was smooth, as Benedict XVI decidedly is not.  The camera does not love him, nor he the camera.  His body language communicates an awkwardness, as if he is not comfortable in his own skin, to say nothing of the uniform he is now required to wear.  His charisma is very much of the office; it is not personal.  Thus, the mantle of the papal media that he inherited from his predecessor cannot help but seem an awkward fit for him.


That media has subjected his papacy to the endless harsh light of scandal.  The timing of it all could not have been worse, nor more awkward-seeming.  Thus, to Benedict’s slightly jaded eye, his predecessor must seem decidedly beatific, judged by the harsher light of his own early career. 

In a word, a state of beaty is in the eye of the beholden

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