Canonisation of Roman Catholic Men and Women
An examination of these canonisations and beatifications and how they advance the cause of Roman Catholicism.
1. General Comments
Why canonise? (Make a publicly proclaimed Saint). No other Christian church carries this process through. Notably the Church of England does not canonise its Saints yet Anglicanism is the closest Christian Church to Roman Catholicism. Is it glorification for glory’s sake or to emphasise the achievements of Catholicism in these Holy men and women. The latter yes to some extent. Certainly in Canonisation a Saint is glorified sometime after he died but only for the sake of the church Roman Catholic not for glory’s sake as intelligent Catholics will tell you. There can be no triumphalism or crowing for the pure blooded Catholic Saints over the ages and now. It is a process conducted by the Holy Father to teach Catholics by pinpointing the example given by these Canonised Saints to the Catholic Church and her members. It is not for general consumption but non-Catholics may hear of the elevation of a particular Holy man or woman to the ranks of the Saints and receive inspiration. That is a secondary purpose, not the primary aim. Clearly the Papacy does not canonise non-Catholics. The whole point of Canonisation is to build up the visible image of Catholicism through these Canonised Catholics and thereby invisibly carry out Christ’s commands to St Peter to feed his sheep and build his church on this rock of Cephas. Both the visible world is involved in the publicised career of the Saint and his canonisation and the invisible world in the Holy Spirit driving forward these Canonisations in the Catholic Church in Rome. If you do not go public you are secretive, insincere and double dealing. The Catholic Church is the opposite of that conduct in openly declaring and fundamentally believing by public statement in these Canonisations. The Pope is not underhand or concealing. The Roman Catholic Church unhesitatingly Canonises if proper even though there may be opponents of that Canonisation – e.g. Escriva: Spanish Basque Priest and anti-republican in civil war in Spain – canonised by John Paul II. There will always be differences of opinion on the Canonisation policy – no-one is perfect: neither the candidate for canonisation nor the Papacy.
2. Forty Martyrs
Certain Anglicans regard the 40 English and Welsh Catholic Martyrs of the Elizabethan period and early Stuarts with coldness. They argue not all those Martyrs are heroes as they were politically inspired and essentially brought down their deaths upon themselves from a regime truly threatened by Catholic Europe (the Armadas to invade England may well have succeeded at any time from 1560-1600 and the actual blow was delivered in the 1580’s (1588) to prove it). Moreover the Beatifications prior to canonisation of these 40 Catholic Martyrs in the 1970-73 period by Pope Paul VI appeared to sustain this political approach of the Papacy in the 16th Century by unrealistically reinforcing their religious martyrdom in isolation from the political background of the period. Even a senior 20th Century English Catholic Bishop has given credence to the political interpretation that the Elizabethan regime become political in its policy to the Catholic Church and her Martyrs. Thus he (Bishop Christopher Butler) laid open the way for the criticism that the Catholic Church tried to politicise the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales in the Beatifications of the early 1970’s and later Canonisations in relation to their political Elizabethan oppressors. Clearly any elevation of the 40 Martyrs effectively could be seen to condemn the Elizabethan regime’s cruel persecution of those Martyrs and thereby weaken Anglican ecclesiastical successors of the Elizabethan Church of England. The mistaken thinking is to equate the Church of England in Tudor England with the repressive Elizabethan Tudor apparatus. Paul VI who beatified the 40 Martyrs was spotlighting their heroic struggle against oppression even unto death, in defence of Roman Catholicism under Papal instructions. Yes they died in an unfriendly country to Catholicism.
3. Pope Paul VI and the 40 Martyrs
If one side is political it may incite a political response from the other side. Paul VI was not a political Pope but a great Shepherd to his flock. He appealed in the Beatifications to his own Roman Catholic faithful rather that the wider Christian world. He had done that wider appeal in Humanae Vitae encyclical 1966-68 (contraception). To have ducked the Canonisations of the 40 Martyrs would have made a nonsense of his Papacy. He had to sustain English Roman Catholics who had found Humanae Vitae difficult to stomach. The 40 Martyrs Canonisations were the ideal opportunity for him to support English Catholics and what is more he was showing Papal solidarity once more to these exceptionally brave Catholic men and women who died for their Roman Catholic faith in England and Wales. The lesson is not in glorifying martyrdom which may be seen as political but in Paul VI sympathy and understanding of the plight of these Martyrs. We English and Welsh need that compassion now in educational matters: clerical abuse, formation of Priests, moral matters, marriage issues, broken families and fostering children, the criminal justice system and Westminster political questions and devolution and our foreign and European policy. Paul VI had no desire to glorify or politicise these martyrdoms – even with Oliver Plunkett whom he canonised in 1975 he was basking in the glory of the Archbishop of Armagh who died for his Catholic faith in 1681 in London. Paul VI was drawing attention away from the death to the life and times of Plunkett. The manner of life counts for more than the manner of death in the eyes of that great Italian pastor Pope Paul VI.
In life we have a deportment and a demeanour – a comportment whether we be a humble citizen or nobleman or illustrious Saint. Our demeanour is the tell-tale sign of our dignity and honourable virtue. No one can see behind the curtain to the soul in life save God Himself. After we die with the aid of the Holy Spirit the Roman Catholic Church searches the depths of some souls of her faithful for the humility and charity without which there can be no sanctity. Then the Roman Catholic Papacy looks for the hallmark of Sainthood – heroic bearing of all things – in other words: purest charity herself – the greatest virtue of all – greater than politics – than Martyrdom even.