At first, the canonization of two popes on a Sunday morning in Rome might seem interesting but somewhat remote from the daily lives of students, faculty and staff at Trinity. What do we care about such distant Catholic pageantry when we have more immediate concerns like getting through exams successfully, grading papers and doing final grades, or far more seriously, trying to make ends meet with children and families, or caring for elderly parents, or worrying about the aimless violence that plagues too many local neighborhoods?
But such stresses and challenges of daily life are precisely the reason why we should stop and contemplate the idea of the saints — even if Catholicism is not your religious tradition, there is an important message in the ritual and tradition of calling out and lifting up people whose lives offer examples of grace and courage. And after contemplating the official saints of the Catholic Church, it’s well worth asking, Who are the saints you know? Surely there are saints among us even now. Who are they, and what do they mean to you?
Why did Pope Francis choose to canonize Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II? Cynics might say it sounds like some kind of insider deal, with one pope doing this for two others. But Pope Francis is hardly the kind of leader who blindly follows any rules of the club — in just one short year, he’s developed quite a reputation for being a bit of an iconoclast, which is someone who breaks with tradition. He refuses to live in the papal apartment; he eschews the red shoes and other trappings of the papal office. He calls people who write to him asking for pastoral counseling. He even has been known to ride the bus! This is not a man given to following rules just because they are rules. He looks for larger social meaning in every gesture.
In canonizing the two popes, Francis sends a message about the truly wide reach that makes the Catholic Church “catholic” in the best sense. St. John XXIII reigned only five years but the effects of his papacy continue today. He started the Second Vatican Council, the force for modernization of not only rituals and liturgies, but the entire worldview of the Church. St. John Paul II, quite the opposite, reigned 27 years, the second longest pope in history. Many people today remember him well — he even visited Trinity in 1979 and I remember waving to him on the steps of Notre Dame Chapel. He was a charismatic and challenging pope. He was one of the most important forces for the end of communism and liberation of Poland and Eastern Europe; he also was a force to rebalance the Church after the liberalizing years post-Vatican II. Even as some people felt that John XXIII was too progressive, others felt that JPII was too conservative. In choosing to canonize both, Pope Francis has created a sense of equilibrium between the major bookends of the modern Church.
Canonization is the formal process through which the Church recognizes worthy, holy people who become official saints. Surely, however, we all know people who might never achieve canonization but who are worthy of reverence as saints. The moment of an official canonization ceremony is an occasion for all of us to reflect on the icons among us, the daily saints who inspire, challenge and hold us to very high standards.
We live and work alongside daily saints. These are the people whose generosity of spirit and care for others are breathtaking. We all know people who never tire of living their commitment of service, of care for those in need. In many cases, these are also people who are generous with their tangible resources, sharing the little they have so that others might have some relief.
Who are the saints among us whom you admire? Share your thoughts on saints — official saints, and living saints — in the comments section of this blog.
See my interview on the PBS NewsHour on the canonizations