Canonizations -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

This past Sunday Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church canonized two beloved Popes, but you probably already know that. What might interest some is the seeming universal wide embrace of the event -- even among Protestants who have in the past taken a more judgmental perspective toward saint-making and saint invoking. Martin Marty speaks to the reasons why this is so. I invite you to reflect on the recent canonizations in light of the changes laid out by Dr. Marty.

Monday | Apr 28 2014
St. John Paul II                                                                                  Photo Credit: Paval Hadzinski / flickr
Yesterday, the Roman Catholic world and many other worlds celebrated the canonization of two new saints, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Non-comatose readers ofSightings need no further attention to be paid to the details and the drama of the event: weekend newspapers gave attention to it on pages devoted to news, features, editorials, and more. And TV!

What had to be striking to anyone who pays close attention to the media was the almost total absence of criticism of the idea of canonizing saints or of approaching the two new saints directly as “intercessors”—mediators between believers and God.

This silence or positive press about “double-new-saints” day may be taken for granted around much of the world today, but such responses contrast with attitudes from at least the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) when official Roman Catholicism fought back against the first Protestants, who engaged in heated polemics about most saints-talk.

Those of us with memories that go back to pre-Pope John XXIII or who consult church histories will find that the Protestant Reformers focused very much on what they saw as abuses in the practice of prayer invoking saints. (The Orthodox Christians looked on, devoted to saints but un-devoted to Roman Catholic canonization processes.)

Why the change today? Let us count the ways. First, non-Roman Catholics have other ways to define themselves than as the anti-saints people. Second, much internal reform within Catholicism has reduced the excesses of saint-worship, which had meant “intercession gone wild” and which critics thought corrupted faith in the Gospel. These reforms have increased the focus on the singular redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

More reasons for friendliness and interest: the Anti-Catholicism that fueled the old flaming critiques has cooled, no matter what professional complainers about “anti-Catholicism” may say. Why fight over such a generally benign and friendly thing as honoring saints as exemplars, though not as “patrons?”

Add the fact that it is hard not to be in the cheering section when, in a century of cynicism and terrors, people of peace are celebrated in distinctive ways. Try this: if there is criticism of one or two of the current new saints in the Catholic register, count on spokespersons for several Roman Catholic factions or causes to bring it forth; they are better at it than sniping Protestants and Orthodox and others in the Christian fold could ever be. Check this: such critics did have their half of the inning during the debates over the career of Pope John Paul II.

We bystanders can greet with good humor the adventure of seeking a second miracle worked after prayerful appeal to Pope John Paul II. He was elevated with only one, though John XXIII could boast—if he were a boaster—of the canonically requisite two. Plenty of Roman Catholics also have reservations about that “miraculous” detail on the road to sainthood. One pictures John XXIII, the “peasant pope” (his self-description) smiling and chiding the sticklers: “why fuss about something like that?”

In my Lutheran parish, April's wall calendar honors Martin Luther King, Jr. (4th), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (9th), St. Mark (28th), and others. Episcopalians list a few more (Anselm of Canterbury (21st)) among them. If we do not canonically Venerate (capital letter) them, they and plenty of non-Christians can and do venerate them (lower case “v”) and find them to be exemplars, alongside Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.


Yardley, Jim. “On Historic Day, John XXIII and John Paul II Become Saints.” International New York Times, April 27, 2014, Europe.

Martin, James. “Two Very Different Saints Come Marching In: Resist the urge to see Pope John XXIII as a liberal and John Paul II as a conservative.” Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2014, Essay.

CBS News. “Pope Francis makes John Paul II, John XXIII saints in unprecedented dual canonization ceremony at Vatican.” April 27, 2014.

Winfield, Nicole. “Pope Francis makes John XXIII, John Paul II saints.” AP, April 27, 2014.

Image Credit: Paval Hadzinski / flickr

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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