The lives of the saints show the world ‘the divine in the human, the
eternal in time’
1. "All it takes to make a man a saint is Grace. Anyone who
doubts this knows neither what makes a saint nor a man", Pascal
observes in Pensées with his characteristic trenchant style. I
start with this observation to point out the dual perspective of these
reflections: in the saint the celebration of God (indeed, of his Grace)
combines with the celebration of man, with his potential and his
limitations, his aspirations and his achievements.
The many objections today to the concepts of "holiness" and
"saint" are well known. Much criticism is also levelled at the
Church for her traditional and uninterrupted practice of recognizing and
proclaiming some of her most outstanding children as "saints".
Some have insinuated that the special importance John Paul II has given
to beatifications and canonizations and the great number of them during
his pontificate might mask an expansionist policy of the Catholic
Church. Others consider that the proposal of new blesseds and saints
from such different backgrounds, nationalities and cultures is merely a
ploy to market holiness, to assure the leadership of the papacy in
contemporary society. Lastly, some see canonizations and the devotion to
saints as an anachronism left over from religious triumphalism, foreign
or even contrary to the spirit and dictates of the Second Vatican
Council, which placed so great an emphasis on the vocation to holiness
of all Christians.
It is obvious that an exclusively sociological interpretation of this
subject would risk not only being reductive but also misleading for an
understanding of the phenomenon, which is so much a feature of the
Holiness, a living reflection of the face of Christ
2. In the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte which
the Pope presented to the Church at the end of Jubilee Year 2000, he
places profound emphasis on the topic of holiness. Among the "great
host of saints and martyrs" which includes "Popes well-known
to history or to humble lay and religious figures, from one continent to
another of the globe", "Holiness", John Paul II notes in
his Letter, "has emerged more clearly as the dimension which
expresses best the mystery of the Church. Holiness, a message that
convinces without the need for words, is the living reflection of the
face of Christ" (n. 7).
To understand the Church, we need to be acquainted with the saints
who are her most eloquent sign, her sweetest fruit. To contemplate the
face of Christ in the changing, diversified situations of the modern
world we must look at the saints who are "the living reflection of
the face of Christ", as the Pope reminds us. The Church must
proclaim the saints and she must do so in the name of that proclamation
of holiness that fills her and makes her, precisely, a means of
sanctification in the world.
"God shows to men, in a vivid way, his presence and his face in
the lives of those companions of ours in the human condition who are
more perfectly transformed into the image of Christ (cf. II Cor 3:18).
He speaks to us in them, and offers us a sign of his kingdom, to which
we are powerfully attracted, so great a cloud of witnesses is there
given (cf. Heb 12:1) and such a witness to the truth of the Gospel"
(Lumen Gentium, n. 50). In this passage from Lumen Gentium
we discover the profound reason for the devotion to blesseds and saints.
Saints show that Life in Christ is possible for all
3. The Church carries out the mission the divine Teacher entrusted to
her to be an instrument of holiness through evangelization, the
sacraments and the practice of charity. This mission also receives a
substantial contribution to its content and spiritual incentives from
the proclamation of the blesseds and saints, for they show that holiness
is accessible to the multitudes, that holiness can be imitated. Their
personal and historical reality allows people to experience that the
Gospel and new life in Christ are neither a utopia nor a mere system of
values, but "leaven" and "salt" that can bring to
life the Christian faith, within and from within the different cultures,
geographical areas and historical epochs.
"The future of human beings" the late Cardinal Giuseppe
Siri remarked, "is never clear, for all their sins corrode
all the paths of history and lead to an intricate dialectic of
cause and effect, error and nemesis, explosions and
interruptions. The certainty that the saints will continue to accompany
people is one of the few guarantees of the future" (Il
Primato della Verità, 154).
Holiness knows no bounds and is alive and well in the Church
4. The phenomenon of the saints and of Christian holiness
gives rise to a sense of wonder that has always existed in the Church
and cannot but amaze even an attentive lay observer, especially today in
a world continuously and rapidly changing, culturally fragmented in
values as well as in customs, From wonder is born the question: what
makes faith incarnate in all the latitudes, in the different historical
contexts, in the most varied categories and walks of life? How, without
the dynamics of power, enforced or persuasive, can there be so many
saints, so different yet so consonant with Christ and with the Church?
What is it that impels people freely to accept the fertile seed of
Christianity that subsequently develops into such diversity and beauty
in the unity of holiness? What a difference there is between globalization,
such a buzzword today, and the catholicity or universality
of the Christian faith and of the Church which lives, preserves and
spreads that faith!
The international scope of Catholicism, not sought for power but for
service and salvation, is confirmed by the saints, men and women who
come from the most varied historical backgrounds. This international
dimension confirms that holiness knows no bounds and that in the Church
it is far from dead; indeed, it continues to be vitally up to date. The
world is changing, yet the saints, while changing with the changing
world, always represent the same living face of Christ. Isn't this an
unmistakeable clue to the unique vitality, half cultural and half
historical—"supernatural" is the right word for us Catholics—of
the proclamation and of Christian Grace?
John Paul II has beatified 1,299 persons and canonized 464
5. In the context of these thoughts, a comment on how the Catholic
Church recognizes and proclaims blesseds and saints will be of interest.
I am referring specifically to the work of the Congregation for the
Causes of Saints, called to study and to recognize holiness and holy
persons through a meticulous and prudent procedure, reinforced, renewed
and renewable in time.
Saints and holiness are recognized in an upward movement from the
bottom to the top. Still today, it is Christians themselves who,
recognizing the "odour of holiness" by an intuition of faith,
point out candidates for canonization to their Bishop—who
is responsible for taking the first step in the process of canonization—and,
subsequently, to the competent dicastery of the Holy See. Neither the
Congregation for the Causes of Saints nor the Pope "invent" or
"fabricate" saints. The Holy Spirit has already singled them
out, as all believers know well. This same Spirit—as
the Gospel says—"breathes
wherever he wills", an observation to which we have grown
accustomed down through the centuries, especially today, since the
Church has spread in every part of the world and to every social class.
This said, it should be recognized that Pope John Paul II has made
the proclamation of new blesseds and saints an authentic and constant
means of evangelization and teaching. He has wished to accompany the
preaching of truth and of the Gospel values with the presentation of
saints who lived those truths and values in an exemplary way. In the
course of his pontificate, from 1978 until today, John Paul it has
beatified 1,299 persons, 1,029 of whom were martyrs, while he has
canonized 464, of whom 401 were martyrs. The numbers of lay people he
has raised to the honour of the altars are far more numerous than one
would think: in fact, 268 blesseds and 246 saints, 514 lay persons in
Some people consider this to be many, for others, it is few.
With regard to the number of saints, John Paul II does not ignore the
opinion of those who think these are too many. Indeed, the Pope
mentions this explicitly. This is his response: "It is sometimes
said that there are too many beatifications today. However, in addition
to reflecting reality, which by God's grace is what it is, it also
responds to the desire expressed by the Council. The Gospel is so
widespread in the world and its message has sunk such deep
roots that the great number of beatifications vividly reflects the
action of the Holy Spirit and the vitality flowing from Him in the
Church's most essential sphere, that of holiness. Indeed, it was the
Council that put particular emphasis on the universal call to
holiness" (Opening Address to the Extraordinary Consistory in
Preparation for Jubilee Year 2000, 13-14 June 1994; ORE, 22
June 1994, p. 8, n. 10).
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II wrote:
"In recent years the number of canonizations and beatifications has
increased. These show the vitality of the local Churches, which are much
more numerous today than in the first centuries and in the first
millennium. The greatest homage which all the Churches can give to
Christ on the threshold of the third millennium will be to manifest the
Redeemer's all-powerful presence through the fruits of faith, hope and
charity, present in men and women of many different tongues and races
who have followed Christ in the various forms of the Christian
vocation" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, n. 37).
In the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, the
Pope also notes: "The ways of holiness are many, according to the
vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has
enabled me to beatify and canonize a large number of Christians, and
among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary
circumstances of life" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n.
Of course, all these beatifications and canonizations are also a sign
of the capacity for inculturation in the life of the Christian faith and
of the Church.
Historical truth sparks wider interest in the lives of saints
6. I would like, lastly, to reflect on the cultural contribution made
by the saints, by the devotions to them, and by the fervent and serious
examination that precedes and accompanies their canonization.
The Second Vatican Council asked that a "careful investigation—theological,
historical, and pastoral"—should
always be made concerning the proposal of the devotion to saints (Sacrosanctum
Concilium, n. 23). This instruction found the Congregation for the
Causes of Saints already prepared, and today it has been fully tested.
The concern for historical truth was always a feature of the work of
the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Already a "Decree"
of Pius X of 26 August 1913, later set forth in the Code of Canon
Law of 1917, required the collection and examination of all the
historical documents concerning the causes. But the fundamental
innovation was contributed by the Motu Proprio "Già da
Qualche Tempo" ("Already for Some Time")
of 6 February 1930, with which Pius XI established the
"Historical Section" for the Congregation of Rites, with the
role of making an effective contribution to the treatment of
"historical" causes, that is, those without contemporary
testimonies of the facts in question. The service rendered later by the
"Historical Section", known from 1969 as the
"Historical-Hagiographical Office", was extended to all the
causes, even "recent" ones, increasing historical-critical
sensitivity at all levels and in all the stages of the process. Lastly,
the Apostolic Constitution "Divinus Perfectionis Magister"
of 25 January 1983, followed by "Normae Servandae"
of 7 February 1983, definitively sanctioned the specific contribution of
method and historical quality in the treatment of the causes of saints.
The historical truth, so diligently sought for theological and
pastoral motives, was also helpful in the cultural presentation of the
saints. The new blesseds and saints "have come out into the
limelight" to be examined and presented also as historically
significant personages, a very integral part of the life of their
Church, their society and their time. Interest in them is therefore no
longer restricted to the Church and believers, but now extends to all
who are interested in history, culture, civil life, politics, pedagogy,
etc. In this way, the mission of these extraordinary people of God
continues in a different yet effective way for the good of the whole of
society. It is significant in this regard that it is no longer only
"authorized ecclesiastics" who consult the archives of the
Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but also lay scholars who do
research there for their doctoral theses, for historical, pedagogical,
sociological studies, etc., because they find a wealth of historically
'The divine in the human, the eternal in time'
7. Therefore holiness, with its own special quality, also affects
culture. The saints have made it possible to create new cultural models,
new responses to the problems and great challenges of peoples, new
developments for humanity on its way through history. On various
occasions the Holy Father has stressed that the heritage of the saints,
"must not be lost; we should always be thankful for it and we
should renew our resolve to imitate it" (Novo Millennio Ineunte,
The saints are like beacons; they show men and women the
possibilities open to human beings. They are therefore also culturally
interesting, independently of the cultural, religious or investigatory
approach to them. A great 19th century French philosopher, Henri Bergson,
observed that "the greatest historical figures are not the
conquerors but the saints". Whereas Jean Delumeau, a historian
specializing in 16th-century Catholicism, invited his readers to note
that the great revivals of Christian history were marked by a return to
the sources, that is, to the holiness of the Gospel, brought about by
the saints and by movements of holiness in the Church.
In recent times, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quite correctly asserted
that: "It is not the sporadic majorities which form in the Church
here and there that determine the path she and we will take. The saints
are the true, crucial majority, and it is from them that we take our
bearings. Let us stick to them! They express the divine in the human,
the eternal in time".
In the Church everything is at the service of holiness
8. In a changing world, not only are the saints not historically or
culturally displaced, but—I think
I must conclude—they are becoming
an even more interesting and reliable subject. In an age of the collapse
of collective utopias, in an age of indifference and the lack of
appetite for all that is theoretical and ideological, new attention is
being paid to the saints, unique figures in whom is found not a theory
nor even merely a moral, but a plan of life to be recounted, to be
discovered through study, to be loved with devotion, to be put into
practice with imitation.
We cannot but be delighted at the revival of attention to the saints,
because the saints belong to everyone; they are a heritage of humanity
that has outdone itself in a development which, while honouring man,
also gives glory to God, because "the glory of God is man
alive" (St Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, IV, 20:7).
I would like to interpret everything reflected on here in the light
of a truly engaging message of the Holy Father John Paul II. In my
opinion, this message can give those who are reflecting on the subject
at least an idea of the Supreme Pontiff's vision of holiness,
inseparably linked to the baptismal dignity of every Christian. Thus, it
can also explain better the role of the beatifications and canonizations
in the pastoral journey of the Church during the 25 years of Karol Wojtyła's
pontificate. It is the Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations
in 2002: "The main task of the Church is to lead Christians along
the path of holiness.... The Church is the 'home of holiness', and the
charity of Christ, poured out by the Holy Spirit, is her soul" (Message
for the 39th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 21 April 2002, nn. 1
and 2; ORE, 5 December 2001, p. 3).
In the Church, therefore, everything and particularly every vocation,
is at the service of holiness! It is undoubtedly in this sense that when
we look at the Church we must never forget to see in her the face of the
"mother of saints", who brings forth a fruitful and
magnanimous superabundance of holiness.