By Roman count some 265 men have been pope and of these popes, so far 81 have been declared saints (with Paul VI on October 14 of this year). Paul VI will become only the 8th papal saint since A.D. 1000, but the 4th of the 20th century, joining Pius X, John XXIII, & John Paul II. Why have only a third of those who sit on the chair of St. Peter or who wear the shoes of the Fisherman been declared saints?
Some lament that this whole process is troublesome -- trivial and silly according to some critics. Even Francis, ever the stand up comic, is said to have joked "And Benedict and I
are on the waiting list." We can all laugh. But is this something about which humor should ensue? Has the canonization process of Rome become politicized and therefore something less than what it presumes to be? Is the pope speaking ex cathedra when he declares someone a saint -- infallibly? Benedict XIV explicitly stated that "writing a name down in the Martyrology does not yet bring about formal or equipollent canonisation."
52 of the first 55 popes became saints during Catholicism’s first 500 years. That accounts for the bulk of the popes who are named as saints on the Roman calendar. In 993, St. Ulrich of Augsburg
was the first saint to be formally canonized, by Pope John XV. By the
12th century, the church officially centralized the process, so that the
pope himself in charge of the commissions that investigated and documented
the lives of potential saints. In 1243, Pope Gregory IX insisted only
a pope had the authority to declare someone a saint. A version of that
canonization process is still in place today.
Modern popes have canonized saints in huge numbers: John Paul II canonized 482 saints – more than the 300 or so canonizations in the entire 600 years before him. Francis’ first canonization included 813 people – the “Martyrs of Otranto” – who were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers in 1480 after refusing to convert to Islam. Saints originally came in two varieties – martyrs and confessors of the faith.
Martyrs require the posthumous performance of one miracle to be
declared a saint. Before 1983, confessors required four; now they
require two. So the standards have been lowered. Even then Francis waived the second miracle for John XXIII.
Back to my point. Why not declare that all popes are automatically saints? Are not the best leaders the holiest of men? In fact, the truth is that leadership often thrusts people into the arena of unpleasant compromise and negotiation, of having to be harsh with friends and lenient with enemies, and of using impolite and uncomfortable means to necessary ends. I wish it were not so. I certainly am not suggesting that holiness is a bad thing or that our leaders, most especially church leaders, are not to be holy. Only to say that a righteous man is not always a very effective leader. This is true for Rome and it is true for many other churches as well.
I know that my own church body has struggled with leadership, switching leaders by a few votes sometimes -- votes that would effect great consequences. Those from the sidelines love to second guess and question and even challenge the decisions of our leaders -- probably the way I am second guessing the way Rome and its popes call people saints. What I am trying to get at is that the test of leadership in the Church is orthodoxy. Every church leader's basic calling is faithfulness. From parish pastor to presiding bishop (whatever you call him), the most important part of our calling is faithfulness. When our church leaders fail, it is almost always not a failure of holiness but of faithfulness. The failure of holiness is more easily seen and dealt with than the failures of faithfulness -- especially in a world in which truth is not seen as certain or eternal. It must be truth spoken in love but it must be truth and not something masquerading as truth.
I would expect that Lutherans would admit that some of the popes were actually quite good -- even though we have problems with the office itself. I would expect that we Lutherans might admit that some popes who were saintly in their personal lives were not to good as church leaders. The Orthodox admit the same thing and count some popes as saints on their sanctoral calendar. But it is not surprising to me that not all popes are thought saints or even half. What is surprising to me is that the Roman process for declaring people heroes is adding so many names so quickly and that some of them are modern popes -- as fine as they were. I think that it is not a good thing to equate leadership in the church with saintliness. They are not quite the same. Occasionally they might be found in one person but this is more a rarity than routine.