The Politics of Promoting Popes

Pope Paul VI could be canonized in 2018, perhaps at the Synod of Bishops (an institution he founded), the National Catholic Reporter reports.

Individuals are canonized in the Roman Catholic Church, of course, because they are judged to be saints in heaven who are worthy of veneration. Miracles certify this judgment and serve as as verification (to the extent that humans can verify which grace is going where for what reasons and through whose intermediary agency). You’re canonized for your holiness, not your management skills or your theological wisdom in having  been, say, Balthasarian rather than Rahnerian. Ecclesiastical politics doesn’t enter in, the theory runs.

Still, anyone who gives careful scrutiny to how they make saints can’t help but wonder whether ecclesio-political considerations haven’t played a role at times – at least if one is prepared to tread into those hypothetical regions where church officials operate from the same mixed motives affecting other mortals.

It did not go unnoticed, for example, that everything was in place for John Paul II to be the lone hero of the day at his canonization – he, that strong leader who at once advanced the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council and rolled back some of its mandates for collegiality and decentralization. But – surprise, surprise – a certain election of a certain pope took place in 2013, and then it just happened to come about that John Paul II would share the stage with John XXIII, that pope who called the Second Vatican Council and is an icon representing shake-up of rigid traditions for many. The requirement for a miracle was waived for St. John XXIII’s canonization.

I wonder: How does Pope Francis think about the canonization of Pope Paul VI? If Paul is canonized a saint, how will it read? Which causes and agendas will enjoy collateral advancement?

I suppose Paul VI could be touted above all as the pope of Humanae Vitae, a connection some will be anxious to make. This will be made more difficult, though, by the signals from Rome that the celebration of the 50th anniversary in 2018 of that encyclical prohibiting artificial contraception is mostly being called off under Bergoglio.

Pray Tell is a blog about liturgy, not sexual ethics, so I will leave to one side without further comment the noteworthy associations of Paul VI with various moral teachings. I’m interested in the associations with liturgical renewal that will be made if Paul VI is canonized.

The canonization of Pope Paul VI will be, it seems to me, a strong valorization of the liturgical reforms carried out by Annibale Bugnini immediately after the Second Vatican Council under Paul’s careful supervision and enthusiastic support. It will not strengthen the hand of those who have tried to discredit Paul VI and his work in the area of liturgy by claiming that he exceeded the brief given him by the Council, that he countenanced a harmful rupture which was contrary to the Council’s intentions, and that his reforms have proven to be (“in the light of maturing of experience…”) mistaken. If Paul VI is held up for veneration, so are his liturgical reforms.

This would fit with Pope Francis’s statements and actions so far. Since the day of his election, Francis has moved slowly but firmly in the area of liturgical renewal. He seems not to want to stoke the liturgy wars by being overly partisan in vanquishing traditionalists or promoting progressives. (I was heartened to see that he recently re-appointed Guido Marini, the very capable assistant he inherited from Benedict XVI, as his MC.) Francis seems to want the Catholic Church to stop fighting about liturgy, and to move gently and peacefully to an ever greater unity behind the liturgical vision of the Second Vatican Council. He is taking his time, but when the moment seemed right he has declared, for example, that the reforms are irreversible, and he has set in motion a discussion about liturgical translation aimed at returning to what the Second Vatican Council decreed in that area.

We should follow Francis’s lead. Those of us committed to the Second Vatican Council should read the canonization of Paul VI not as a victory for our side, but as a summons for all sides to be generous and patient with one another in the next stage of our appropriation – together – of the Second Vatican Council.

Apart from what I may think about Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, or the high medieval offertory prayers of the Tridentine missal, or ad orientem, or any number of things, I would be willing to talk about the provision of all sorts of generous options or even requirements if – if – they helped Summorum Pontificum go away and helped all the sons and daughters of Mother Church reunite around the reformed Roman rite. And although Pope Francis has admonished us to avoid the expression “Reform of the Reform,” which of course has taken on the connotation of attack on the Pauline liturgy in many quarters, I suspect Francis is not opposed to speaking of reform proposals if they’re free of toxic polemic against Vatican II and Bugnini and Paul VI. (But then again, maybe not. Maybe Francis he looks at all the heat and fervor around such liturgical minutia and shakes his head in disbelief.)

We will see if Paul VI is canonized in 2018. If he is, we will have reason to reflect on what his canonization means. I have a hunch that Pope Francis has thought all this through and has a clear sense of what he will want to say in canonizing his venerable predecessor. I’m pretty sure the canonization will mean very good things for the cause of liturgical renewal.


Featured image: Paul VI at the first Mass in Italian.


  1. I am not sure it is the healthiest thing for the Church that somehow, rather amazingly, since John XXIII we have managed to have three saintly pontiffs in a row (not counting John Paul I, who surely would be a beatus by now had he lasted longer than a month)…while before John XXIII, papal beatifications/canonizations were a relative rarity.

    Is there really a cult of Blessed Pius IX? I guess, in some places. Of Blessed Paul VI? I guess, in some places. Of Blessed Urban V? Can Avignon observe his day as a memoria ad libitum?

    There was a wisdom, I think, in making canonization relatively rare.

    1. “Is there really a cult . . . ?” is exactly the right question. The canonization process was built to serve quality control in popular piety; Church recognition of the cult of a particular individual was not to be accorded lightly. Local promotion of the cause of an individual is not new and may have brought about the devising of a control process. The latter has become something of an end in itself. Pope John Paul II’s 482 canonizations were more than the total of those canonized by his predecessors, or so I have heard.

  2. What are Paul VI’s heroic virtues that led to the movement to canonize him? Is there a groundswell of popular devotion to him?

  3. “Is there is cult…? Is there a groundswell of popular devotion…?” Good questions from Michael and John.

    Those questions could be asked of almost every founder/foundress of a religious community who has been beatified or canonized. And the answer would usually be “no, except among the members of that community.”

    I have nothing against the Church beatifying and canonizing those who have demonstrated heroic virtue in their lifetimes, even if they are relatively unknown. But I don’t think their liturgical memorialization should be added to the particular calendar of a country unless there is truly a widespread cult among the Catholic people of that country. If their cult is only in a particular region of a country, then their memorial should be for that region alone.

    I remember witnessing a bishop from the Eastern USA urging his fellow bishops to approve the addition of Rose Philippine Duchesne (whom I, a native of Kansas, greatly admire) to the USA’s particular calendar, each time mispronouncing her surname as if it were that of the actor who played Agent Mulder on “The X-Files.”

    Oh, and Merry Christmas too!

    1. Technically, the canonization for sure contains no affirmation whatsoever of the liturgical reform. But I think it will read and “feel” that way. Others may disagree.

      But this line at NLM doesn’t make a lot of sense:
      “… no one has the right to criticize, attack, silence or call for the silencing of other Catholics if they contest that reform.”

      Oh, I think anyone has the right to criticize (or attack, for that matter) any viewpoint they disagree with. As for me and my house, we’ll keep on criticizing – but try not to attack (unfairly)! – those who reject Vatican II and the liturgical reform! 🙂

      But silence others? Huh? I’m not sure I have it at my disposal to get the police to silence NLM or anyone else… Not sure what the reference is.


  4. I have long felt that far too many clerics and religious are canonised.
    I know that it takes money to see through the process, but even so ……
    What sort of a devalued view of lay spirituality is shown?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *