Making of saints: Has the focus changed?

The only interest in saints must be saintly and holy, not any worldly desire such as popularity or income
Making of saints: Has the focus changed?

Father Kuriakose Chavara and Sister Euphrasia, both canonized in November 2014, are among three modern-day saints from the Indian state of Kerala. (Photo supplied)

Umberto Eco in his brilliant novel Baudolino tells of himself "… the problem of my life is that I've always confused what I saw with what I wanted to see."

Everyone loves to imagine a better other world, forgetting the painful one we live in. The lives of saints help us imagine the best world, the one beyond this world.

The first saints were declared by popular acclaim but the popes took control of the process in the Middle Ages. By the 16th century, canonization had become a judicial process complete with evidence and cross-examination.

Of the 272 persons canonized since 1592, records show that 46 percent came from Italy, 34 percent from non-Italian Western Europe, 7 percent from Eastern Europe, 7 percent from Latin America, 3 percent from North America, 2 percent from Asia-Pacific and less than 1 percent from Africa.

But during the time of the Polish Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005), we see an increase in Polish canonizations and beatifications. From 1990 to 2004, the Polish share of canonizations was 10 percent (86 percent of Eastern European canonizations).

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St. John Paul II declared 111 people saints in the 25 years of his papacy, more than all 264 popes before him combined, creating a debate in the church over sainthood.

"Sometimes it is necessary to do something that is too much," he reportedly told journalists on a plane. His papacy indeed was marked by "too much" in most papal activities such as travel and production of documents.

St. John Paul II's pontificate seemed to give new impetus to saint making, shifting its focus from Europe to elsewhere including Asia. However, one would doubt if Pope Francis is set to overtake his predecessors' records. He has so far canonized 42 people, an average of eight every year since he took office in 2013.

Indian Catholics have been given four modern-day saints since St. John Paul II's time. They are Alphonsa, Euphrasia and Kuriakose Chavara of Kerala and Teresa of Kolkata. In the same period, the Philippines got two saints while 16 martyrs of Japan were beatified.

The Vatican's eagerness to find more role models for Indian Catholics seems to have encouraged Catholics in the southern Indian state of Kerala to propose more of their saintly people for canonization.

Among all the Indian states, Christians in Kerala have put more men and women in the path of sainthood. They already claim three of the four modern-day saints. Besides, four Kerala Catholics are on a list of the blessed, five are venerable and more than 30 are in the first stage of canonization as servants of God. Some call Kerala the "saint capital of India."

Every church in any age has to be a cradle of saints. As elsewhere in the church, Kerala also has saintly men and women among the laity, religious, priests and bishops. All need not be canonized.

Canonization looks for holiness and the heroic living of faith to be taken as models of life. Every saint is put on a pedestal as an example of one who followed Christ to the point of surrendering one's own life as a gift to God.

The making of a saint can be perceived as a question of prestige for a family, congregation or diocese. Holiness is a height and a glory to which anyone can aspire; it is height you get by humility and self-abnegation; it is glory you get by lifting those in ruts and on the periphery. It does not come from biology or heredity.

The appetite for making saints has seemingly decreased in the West but is catching up in Asia and the rest of the world. Saints are in some way religious commodities for consumption. The West seems to have saturated this consumption.

The only interest in saints must be saintly and holy, not any worldly desire such as popularity or possible income from business connected with pilgrim centers. Disinterest in profit and popularity should prevail in all affairs connected with the process of canonization.

Commercialization of pilgrim centers and places associated with saints is one danger. Pilgrimages are part of Christian life. However, one should not absolutize pilgrimages and forget the importance of the journey to one's own interiority and solitariness.

Christianity is a religion of incarnation. We can worship God anywhere, yet it is of great help to have places and objects set apart and made holy. The problem then is not to rid ourselves of statues and crucifixes and medals and saints and holy water and Mary. The problem is rather how to reinterpret and rearticulate some of our stories so that they represent the authentic story and do not degenerate into superstition, folk religion and magic.

Father Paul Thelakat, a journalist and priest from Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, is a former spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church. He is based in Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala.

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