Monday, May 2, 2011

Discovering a Saint

Pope John Paul II was beatified on May 1 and can now be referred to as Blessed John Paul II.

Blessed John Paul, pray for us!

Presumably the next step will be canonization as a Saint…and so his cause continues. The process undertaken by the Church in the cause for sainthood is fascinating but often misunderstood. (For brief description of the process click here.) But aside from the technical procedures involved - the number of miracles required, the review of the person’s writings, the testimony of friends and family - many non-Catholic Christians wonder how the Church can “make” saints at all. Isn’t that something only God can do? Why does the Church assume such power for itself?

I would like to briefly point out a distinction that is often overlooked. Saints are not “made” by the Church; they are “recognized” by the Church. Another way to look at this is to use an analogy from the realm of science and technology.

New scientific or technological advances are made in two ways: invention and discovery. In our quest for knowledge we may construct a more powerful telescope, a ship that travels to the stars, or a machine that processes information. When we use our skills and resources in this way, to make something that did not exist before, this is called invention. On the other hand, we may also find a planet that we never knew existed, realize a link between a disease and a particular gene in our DNA, or study the behavior of a newfound species. When we expand our knowledge about the world that exists around us this is called discovery.

The process for canonization of Saints is often misunderstood as a process similar to inventing – thus the “making” of saints. But this is not an accurate view. The Church does not have some formula or ritual that bestows sainthood on an individual. John Paul did not become a Saint through the power of the Church. The Church did not muster its resources to bestow sainthood on this man. Rather, God’s grace makes us saints. John Paul II is in heaven only through the power of God’s love and John Paul’s cooperation with that love. What the Church does in her process of canonization is more akin to what we would call discovery. The Church studies the facts, reviews the evidence, examines the clues and comes to a conclusion. The Church’s authority on this matter is bound by God’s will. It is a process of discovery. The Church does not make saints – only God can do that. The Church can only observe and take note what God has willed.

In John Paul II we have discovered a great man, a blessed man, and one day we may announce with surety of faith that we have discovered a true Saint.

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