Holiness & Saint-Making – Part IV

Why does the Church bother canonizing anyone?



You may ask why we bother canonizing anyone. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the [canonized] saints to them as models and intercessors” (#828). Philip Zaleski addresses the subject in “The Saints of John Paul II” (First Things, March 2006):

[W]hy does the Church find it necessary or desirable to bring some of these saints so dramatically into public view? Why bother to canonize? The best contemporary discussion of the subject occurs in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 1954 book Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Mission, in which the great Catholic theologian explains his views with characteristic rigor and, some might add, uncharacteristic simplicity. Balthasar’s presentation is of particular interest because of his influence upon the writings of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Balthasar suggests that the entire structure of the Church, from the Petrine ministry to the humblest parish pastorate, exists for one purpose: the making of saints. “The ultimate reason for her whole institutional and objective side,” he writes, is “the obligatory vocation to subjective and personal sanctity.” Even Christ’s personal sanctity serves the same end: “Christ had no other motive in ‘sanctifying’ himself than ‘that they also might be sanctified through the truth’ (John 17:19).”

Zaleski summarizes the purposes of canonization: “It glorifies God, whose grace sanctifies the saints, and it honors the saints, who reflect God’s glory; it provides models of holiness for guidance and imitation as each of us struggles to identify and fulfill his own mission and thus find his own path to sanctity…”

Following the 1988 Synod, St. John Paul II issued a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation entitled Christifideles Laici (“On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” Dec. 30, 1988), which discusses the “Universal Call to Holiness.” Our calling is to sainthood, not to the ambition of being canonized. Nonetheless, he wrote the following in Paragraph 17:

It is appropriate to recall here the solemn proclamation of beatification and canonization of lay men and women which took place during the month of the Synod. The entire People of God, and the lay faithful in particular, can find at this moment new models of holiness and new witnesses of heroic virtue lived in the ordinary everyday circumstances of human existence. The Synod Fathers have said: ‘Particular Churches especially should be attentive to recognizing among their members the younger men and women of those Churches who have given witness to holiness in such conditions (everyday secular conditions and the conjugal state) and who can be an example for others, so that, if the case calls for it, they (the Churches) might propose them to be beatified and canonized’ (47). [Italics added]

Maybe we can understand canonization better if we think of it like the Church’s “Hall of Fame,” except that we propose and God disposes.


***Editor’s Note: For Part V in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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