One of the latest Catholic talking points, among Australians at least, is the canonisation of Mary MacKillop which lead to her becoming Australia’s first saint. Australians are all relatively ecstatic about the whole deal seeing that it is another box they can tick on their amazing Why we are the greatest nation in the world, ever list. But what exactly is this saint business all about and what are its effects on a large section of society?
Like most other Catholic practices it was instituted with noble intentions. The idea behind it, as I understand from viewing a few Catholic definitions and explanations of it, is to provide followers of the Christian faith with human models of people who actually got the hang of following Christ. As Peter Kreeft puts it: “Saints are not freaks or exceptions. They are the standard operating model for human beings.” From this I understand that they are role models for Christians to look up to and be encouraged by in their own walk with Christ. The Catholic Church also teaches that it does not, in fact, make anyone a saint but rather, it recognises a saint. Kenneth Woodward noted the following: “A saint is always someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like — and of what we are called to be. Only God ‘makes’ saints, of course. The church merely identifies from time to time a few of these for emulation. The church then tells the story. But the author is the Source of the grace by which saints live. And there we have it: A saint is someone whose story God tells.” To become a saint though, as discussed above, there are certain procedures which need to take place or requirements which first need to be met. Members of the church turn to a bishop to nominate the saint-to-be, which leads to investigation and further investigation where after the person under investigation is declared non cultus – assuring no cult worship has grown around the candidate or their tomb. The Pope then venerates the person by basically declaring they behaved properly Christian in all their ways and the The Church then announces that they belief the person is in fact in heaven. Finally, the person is canonised, which necessarily means they have contributed to at least one miracle in their life, and hereafter feast days may be celebrated anywhere and churches built in their honour. It’s a basic explanation but I trust you get the picture.
It is always great to have role models I believe. Jesus Christ, according to himself, is the ultimate role model, not only to Christians but to all mankind – Christians are only those who acknowledge him as the one he claims to be. Jesus is sort of a dual role model: he came so that we could understand God’s heart and passion better and also so that we should know how to follow after God. He basically modeled God and man simultaneously – seeing that he actually was God and man simultaneously. One could also argue that Christians could act as role models to each other, as Johnny Cash did through his book, The Man in White, of which he said “Jesus Christ is the one who laid it out for us and showed us what to do and Paul’s the one that showed us how it could work”.
We can look unto the so-called ‘heroes of our faith’ as an encouragement to us on our own faith journey. This is what the Catholic Church intends to establish through the canonisation of people into saints it seems. But isn’t it all counterproductive however?
Jesus refers to himself as the Way, Truth and Life and says that no one can know God, the one all people long to see, without accepting him for who he claims to be. He says further that all his followers are equal in value and purpose and must rely on each other, by means of relationship, to get the following-after-Jesus thing right. That is the system God chooses, according to Jesus, to work through – an intensely diverse group of broken people, from extremely different backgrounds, being transformed into glorious beings, by simply following after Jesus Christ while functioning as one family. Jesus did not only intend that we follow after him but also that we could personally know God as individuals, he came to abolish a system where we rely on specific individuals to help us connect with God – he established a system where we could each connect personally and also communally with any other believer, so that we don’t only have relationship with Him but also with one another in the process.
I believe that canonisation of people does necessarily create a culture where good works get highlighted as the thing that qualifies people as saints while God considers all those who hear his word, and then believe it, as saints. This then creates an environment where Christ followers are not seen as equals which leads to the unrecognised ones considering themselves less relevant to God’s cause and even incapable of pursuing an intimate relationship with Him. Even when the unrecognised ones do realise they are free to have relationship with God themselves, they are many times still bound by the fact that a saint is a necessary ingredient for connecting with God. This is because there is a practice of praying with (not unto, as most understand) the various saints to God. The saints supposedly act as intercessors or mediators while the Bible is clear about the fact that Jesus prefers to act as mediator between men and God. Praying is conversation with God, sometimes it happens privately but also many times fellow believers are supposed to do it together. Does the saint system not influence the much needed ‘together time’ negatively?
These are some of my personal concerns I have with the tradition of canonisation. I believe not all Catholics fall into these traps but in the same breath I ask then: Why not simply just remove these traps? I’m also convinced that this issue is not unique to the Catholic Church but does also occur among Protestants and Orthodox movements, where people look unto others as idols or necessary role players without whom they cannot have relationship with God. My question once again: Why all the trouble to establish these über-Christians, taking into account all the side-effects, by means of rituals?