Up until recently popes have been largely ignored in the saintly sweepstakes. Only one pontiff was canonized in the twentieth century -- Pius X by Pius XII in 1954 -- and the last one before the X was the V (Pius V of the sixteenth century). Pope Celestine V -- just to break the Pian Order run -- was a medieval-worthy pope but the papal saintly canvas is best seen in the first six centuries of the first Christian millennium. Some sixty-plus saints, a veritable papal tsunami of official holiness.

The current crop of papal saints and candidates for sainthood is limited -- with one exception -- to the last century. Pius IX, a strong and no longer fashionable pope whose hostility to the modern world balanced uneasily with his private saintliness, may well be coupled with the even-more controversial Pius XII, whose disputed legacy around his Second World War record will continue to fuel various iterations of unchecked zeal and idelogical rigidity until the complete war archives of the Holy See are available for serious scrutiny. And that time will come. Only after that occurs does it seem to me prudent and morally sensitive to move further with his cause for sainthood. Or not.

Francis is not unaware of the tensions involved; his close Jewish friends know of his personal anguish; everything is in the timing.

The canonizations of two popes on Divine Mercy Sunday -- John XXIII and John Paul II -- are the result of several clearly calculated decisions:

  • move with the anticipated alacrity on the cause of John Paul II following the demonstrated outporuing of affection and admiration at the time of his very public funeral for a change-setter of consequence (ecclesial change-setters work to a different momentum and end point)
  • bring forward the languishing cause of the inspiring agent of ecclesial change, the man who called the Second Vatican Council into being against nearly insurmountable resistance, John XXIII, thereby validating the Council and his vision
  • twin the papal canonizations and in so doing establish the line of continuity between the two popes eschewing the polarizing and triumphalistic impulses that would divide the church powered by groups aligning around one pope over against another

Francis must also find a way to buck an institutional trend to canonize those who hold the Office of Peter. It may be that the recent spate of saintly papal candidates signals some kind of ontological change in the Petrine Ministry and those elected to exercise it or it may be that the lobbyists for sainted or beatified popes see in the accelerated sainting of popes a way to celebrate the unassailable integrity of a position that has been under siege for decades.

John Paul II's revolutionary changes to the process of saint-making in 1983 and his intense commitment to showcase the "holy ones" who should inspire us in an age of personality cults, cheap celebritization, and empty narratives of success, as a way of offering a wholesome corrective to modern believers has proven a mixed bag.

Too many saints -- by which we mean officially recognized ones, those added to the list or canon -- can debase the coinage. Their impact locally and universally can be muted by their growing unexceptionality. What happens if we have a genuinely great pope but one whose cause is stillborn or who is awash in a disabling controversy?

One Jesuit postulator (a figure commissioned to shepherd a cause through its various stages) has publicly stated his unease with this contemporary craze for papal sainting. What happens to the one who doesn't get the halo? Was he deficient in some way? A less worthy Peter?

All things considered, saint-making will never lose its poltical dimension. And that is a good thing.

After all it is not angels who make saints.