It seems that becoming a Saint in the Roman Catholic church ain’t quite the chore it used to be. A number of recent articles concerning the road to sainthood for Pope John Paul II describe him as being on the “fast track.”
This is a phrase that appears in print in 1977 as a verb and is defined by the OED as;
To put on a fast development track; spec. (a) to advance or promote (a person) rapidly (esp. in Educ. contexts) (cf. accelerate v.); (b) to accelerate the development of (a product or project, esp. a construction scheme)
It’s since jumped the divide and become a noun to mean;
A route, course, or method that provides for more rapid results than usual (New Oxford American Dictionary).
Considering that John Paul only died in 2005, this does indeed seem quick. Normally, one tends to think of it taking many years before someone who, say, cured a leper in the Middle Ages, became a saint in the 19th century.
Now what, you may ask, does a dead person have to have done to become a saint? After all, the extremely popular and incredibly hard-working Mother Teresa died in 1997 and is still not a saint – although she in on the road, albeit not a fast one.
So here are the rules of the game. First, you have to be dead. And dead for at least 5 years. Unless there’s some little-known example out there of which I am unaware, having shuffled off the mortal coil is pretty much a prerequisite.
Second, you have to be formally proposed as being worthy of sainthood and a bishop is appointed to investigate your case. If everything is kosher, the Pope will declare a nihil obstat, a wonderful Latin phrase that means “nothing obstructs.” The Roman Catholic church still loves Latin and so any opportunity to toss out a bon mot is always met with some excitement. Oh, and the candidate now gets a snazzy new title; Servant of God.
Step three is for a church official called a Postulator to gather enough evidence to establish that the saint-in-waiting has lived a life of “heroic virtues.” This doesn’t necessarily exclude the Servant of God from having been a whoring drunkard who ate children, but of course, that sort of behavior is going to demand some seriously heroic virtue to make up for it.
Step four is when it gets really exciting: There has to be a miracle. Just being nice and good and helpful isn’t enough. World peace, a cure for cancer, and free beer for everyone are not going to make it unless there is something miraculous about it. But if you can pull off just one demonstrable miracle, you’re almost there. Being a one-trick-pony gets you the new title of “Blessed.” This is what is referred to as beatification. Now it’s time to step up to the plate and pull at least one more rabbit out of the hat to get to…
Canonization! If you can convince the Pope that you are multi-miraculous, you can now join the rank of Saints and go marching in.
Let’s take a look at those two words; beatification and canonization. The former originally meant;
The action of rendering, or condition of being rendered, supremely happy or blessed.
The Old French béatification came, unsurprisingly, from the Latin beatificare – to make happy or blessed. It was in the 17th century that it took on the specific meaning for the Roman Catholic church as;
An act of the Pope, by which he declares that a deceased member of the Church is in the enjoyment of heavenly bliss, and grants to certain persons the privilege of paying a particular form of worship or reverence to him.
The word canonization obviously comes from the verb canonize, which is defined as;
To place in the canon or calendar of the saints, according to the rules and with the ceremonies observed by the Church.
This comes from the Latin canonizare, to canonize, and then from the word canon meaning “A rule, law, or decree of the Church; esp. a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council.” We can go back to the Greek κανών for the really old origin.
At this point, you may be wondering what Pope John Paul’s first miracle was? Well, allegedly he cured one Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre of Parkinson’s disease. Here’s what Washington’s Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl had to say about the investigation:
“One of the reasons the miracle process is such a demanding and rigorous one is you actually have to have scientific proof. In the case of the miracle that was just approved you have to have a board of doctors and scientists saying there is no explanation for what happened. There is no physical, scientific, medical explanation for what happened. And the church then declares this an intervention of God.”
This is the typical religious pseudo argument that lack of an explanation means it must be a miracle from a god. Or gods. Or even pixies, fairies, invisible rabbits called Harvey, or the magical teapot orbiting the earth just out of sight of the telescopes. Whenever something can’t be currently explained, God wins by default. God himself/herself/itself doesn’t actually have to be proved because he/she/it lives in the gaps.
Perhaps the church should take a look at another Latin phrase: argumentum ad ignorantiam.This is a rhetorical device also known as the “Argument from Ignorance,” which basically says that something is true because it has NOT been proven false. In this case, the miracle cannot be disproved by current scientific explanations, therefore it must be true. Which, of course, is totally wrong.
The truth is there probably IS some potential physical, scientific, medical explanation for what happened – it’s just that there isn’t enough evidence to create and test a hypothesis. And that’s very different from saying “it’s inexplicable therefore must be a miracle.”
Still, this will not deter the church from hastening Pope JPII’s sainthood. Other “miracles” are apparently being examined at the moment, though no details are available as to what they are. However, considering that the Vatican has just announced that beatification will take place on May 1st, 2011, canonization can’t be too far away.