The descriptor saint is used way too often. “Your mother was a saint,” Sheriff Sam Deeds is told in Lone Star, the context being that it’s saintly to stay with a philandering husband, the sort of talk that accurately reflects the way laypeople use the term. Patience, generosity, warmth—pick a positive quality broadly applied by an individual, and informally it’s a mark of sainthood.
Of course, the concept of saints is far from informal. Originating from the Latin sancire (consecrate)—which itself derives from the Greek word ἁγιάζω, meaning something along the lines of being holy by virtue of being set apart from the world—with literal sainthood lying in the province of the Catholic Church. Protestants may play sainthood’s greatest hits (John, Paul, Matthew, and Ringo…wait, not Ringo), and religious scholars have a few faves, for whom the title is used honorifically (Augustine, Aquinas), but in so-called modern times, only Catholics get all official about it.
There’s a very specific road to sainthood. An investigation must find that nothing hinders the case for your canonization. Further study of your life must find that you embodied “heroic virtues.” And at least one miracle must be on your résumé—two if you weren’t martyred.
Of course, you have to be dead first. Usually the canonization process doesn’t begin until the would-be saint has been deceased for at least five years, but as happened with Roberto Clemente in Major League Baseball and its rough equivalent to sainthood, the Hall of Fame (which also has a five-year waiting process after the “death” of that player’s career. Coincidence?), special candidates can be fast-tracked. Mother Teresa is a case in point, as Pope John Paul II waived the waiting period.
There’s something at least a little disingenuous about sainthood in our relatively modern age. Our vastly improved understanding of the physical world and its processes, coupled with an ability to document most everything in myriad ways, leaves little leeway for claims of miracles being accepted by any but the super superstitious. The rest of us need, if not proof, at least hard evidence.
Any unbiased look at the lives of Mother Teresa (sainthood pending) or John Paul II (canonized April 2014) will find them wanting on this score. Teresa may have done much to ease the suffering of many, and John Paul II may have done yeoman’s bringing the papacy into technological times. But miracles? Nah. And it will be the same for every John, Joan, and Regular Joe from here on out. There’s a reason that today the “miracles” that get you sainthood are no more than someone’s being gravely ill but recovering for reasons leaving their doctor’s stumped and saying it was because of So-and-So (as happened in the case of John Paul II). A combination of unlikelihood, ignorance, and faith passes muster. Former supposed saints earned their stripes in a world without scrutiny. But that world is no more, and the miraculous ain’t what it used to be.
But don’t put away the censer just yet, because we may have a real-life saint (relatively speaking, at least) right here in our midst. His name is Pope Francis, and he’s the right guy for the job.
Frankly (ha!), I was slightly disappointed when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. Not because I had anything against him—I’d never heard of the fellow—but because an African cardinal was on the shortlist. On a planet where Africa is far and away the most troubled, neglected, and needful continent—in no small part due to lingering bigotry against dark-skinned peoples by the economically superior light-skinned world—for a non-Afrikaner African leader of the Church might have been a game-changer for the Dark Continent.
But Pope Francis is a winner. He has taken a religion that for its entire history has taken Dark Ages stances toward homosexuality and science and aligned it with enlightenment. The “Big Bang” happened and evolution is happening, he affirms. He says he is in no position to pass judgment on homosexuals.
Yes, these are ideas that almost any adolescent is capable of grasping. And for all the dramatic headlines about Francis’s comments, he’s not recommended doctrinal changes regarding homosexuality; and he’s not the first pontiff to be open-minded to “Big Bang” cosmology and Darwinian evolution. Then there’s his affirmation of some of the Church’s most backward-looking positions (e.g., no artificial contraception). But there is just something about this particular Bishop of Rome makes us feel like he’s worthy of job. That’s more than a neat trick.
Ironically, it seems Pope Francis is less widely loved within the Church itself. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warns that although “Francis is charismatic, popular, widely beloved [… and] until this point, faced strong criticism only from the church’s traditionalist fringe, and managed to unite most Catholics in admiration for his ministry,” continuing down the progressive path he seems to be beating might “leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents—encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.”
But it’s not going to happen. Just like with cannabis criminalization, the old guard is dying off. Through the intercession of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is becoming a holier house, filled with less ignorance, less prejudice, less hostility.
And why not? Mirabile dictu, the honest-to-God truth is that belief in the Holy Trinity does not entail a literal belief in Genesis or strict adherence to the laws of Leviticus. Barriers between Catholics and the acceptance of evolution and homosexuality are manmade, not divine constructs. The foremost experts in inflationary cosmology will freely admit they don’t know what started it all, just as the foremost experts in biology and neuroscience and psychology will say they can’t say whether we have souls.
The world at large is encouraged by Pope Francis. We like it when leaders—any leaders—have their hearts and minds in the right place. We like it when our traditions fit our times. We like to see society being reshaped along the lines of what most believers and nonbelievers alike picture when we imagine God: reasonable, merciful, just, accepting, loving, egalitarian, pragmatic; free from pettiness, disingenuousness, prejudice, and hatred.
And so we like Pope Francis. Hell, we love him. Yeah, we’re overenthusiastic. Yeah, we’re jumping the gun. But he’s humbly been going about his business for less than two years, and so far, so good. What might he do in a decade?
So, while it may be premature, if you’re thinking about popes as saints, may we present St. Francis of Argentina for your consideration? Hey, if the halo fits.
Love and formic acid,
(Photo credit: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service)