Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa last Sunday, declaring the sainthood of a 20th-century figure renowned for her ministry to the poor and dying. Yet as the pope celebrated her sanctity, he also furthers a boom in the business of minting saints during his papacy.
Theologians and papal watchers say Francis is proclaiming new saints
at a rate not seen since the heady days of John Paul II, the Church’s
canonization champion. In his three-and-a-half years as pope, Francis
has presided over 29 canonizations — 11 more than Benedict XVI, his
predecessor, at the same point in his papacy.
If you consider that one
of Francis’ canonizations involved 813 15th-century Italian martyrs, he
may even hold the record — a record the pope is said to have jokingly
It is not just the number that is notable but, in some cases, the
speed and manner of canonizations, as well as Francis’ willingness to
bless the causes of candidates touched by controversy. By doing so, he
has sparked a measure of controversy himself.
“When John Paul II died, there was a very strong feeling that there
had simply been too many saints made, that the process was being
cheapened,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis
and the Making of a Radical Pope.
“I think there’s a feeling that Benedict deliberately slowed the
whole thing down,” Ivereigh said. “He canonized fewer. I suppose what’s
happening with Francis is that the pace we saw before Benedict is being
In the Roman Catholic Church, the path to sainthood can take decades,
frequently centuries. Yet Mother Teresa — who will now be officially
known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta — reached the threshold of sainthood a
relatively quick 19 years after death.
Francis, in fact, has now presided over three of the fastest
canonizations in modern Church history —those of Mother Teresa, John
Paul II and a Spanish nun who died in 1998 and was declared a saint last
year. The blessing of such rapid sainthoods has irked critics who argue
that the Vatican is in danger of becoming an assembly line of saints.
“A certain historical distance is required in order to properly
examine the holiness of a person’s life,” said Edmund Arens, professor
of fundamental theology at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland. “If
a person led an exemplary life, why not take time to analyze it
Some also say that Francis may be favouring candidates who reflect
his personal focus on inequality, mercy and the plight of the poor. They
cite, for instance, last year’s beatification — an intermediary step to
sainthood — of the Reverend Óscar Romero, a Salvadoran bishop
assassinated in 1980.
Romero is seen by some as a leftist symbol in his native El Salvador,
and his cause had been stalled for years. But in 2013, only a month
after Francis assumed office, a senior Vatican official announced that
the pope had “unblocked” Romero’s path to sainthood.
“This is very important, to do it quickly,” Francis said of Romero’s cause a year later.
Some Vatican officials privately concede that the pope is playing
“pastoral politics” — utilizing the saint system to leave his mark. Yet
others strongly counter that the pope is not cherry-picking saints,
adding that the system simply does not work that way.
Yes, the pope gives the ultimate up or down on candidates he is presented with. But, they say, he does not select his own.
“The final word is the pope’s, but the pope does not act in a
vacuum,” said the Reverend Robert Sarno, a senior official in the
Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “He does not just reach
back in time and look for saints.”
Many Catholic scholars see an added benefit in faster canonizations,
especially for contemporary figures such as Mother Teresa and John Paul
II who can seem more relevant to the lives of modern Catholics. Rather
than study her life through arcane texts, the student of Mother Teresa
can simply watch reruns of her television interviews on YouTube. Many
Catholics still vividly recall the electric, stadium-size Masses of John
“They lived under the same circumstances as we do, therefore they're
much closer to us,” said Manfred Becker-Huberti, a Catholic theologian
at the Philosophical-Theological University of Vallendar in Germany.
They “serve as role models. Someone like Mother Teresa can inspire
people not just to worship her but to change their own lives.”
Like John Paul II, Francis has not shied away from candidates
considered relatively controversial — including Mother Teresa, who
laboured for most of her life in the slums of the Indian city then known
as Calcutta (now Kolkata). She became perhaps best known for her
hospices, where the poor and dying could pass with dignity.
“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather
the feeling of being unwanted,” she is quoted as saying in a 1971
Yet if her life’s work generated admirers and earned her a Nobel
Prize, it also spawned critics who charged her missions with failing to
embrace modern medicine to treat and ease the suffering of patients.
“The people she ‘saved’ were people in a graveyard waiting to be
buried, people who were not given the right medications. People who
suffered,” said Tariq Ali, a British journalist who co-produced a
critical documentary on Mother Teresa in 1994. “That Francis is doing
this is a regression in the sense that you just make all these people
saints with dodgy records.”
By public opinion
Many theologians and Vatican watchers say Mother Teresa — a woman who
often seemed to be canonized by public opinion while she lived — would
have been on the fast track to sainthood regardless of who was pope.
Saints are lofty figures seen by practising Catholics as figures who
can intercede with God on their behalf. Typically a cause, or case, for
sainthood can start only five years after death.
generally forwarded to Vatican City from the diocese where they died,
with postulators in Rome compiling reports to submit to a panel of
Vatican authorities. Most candidates generally require two “proven”
miracles, though figures who died for the faith need only one. Such
claims are verified through exhaustive, if secretive, reviews.
In the case of Mother Teresa, John Paul II initially lifted the
five-year rule, allowing her process to start early. Although the second
miracle attributed to her intervention — a Brazilian man who recovered
from a brain infection after praying to her — is alleged to have
occurred in 2008, Vatican officials say they were not made aware of it
until 2013, following Francis’ official trip to Brazil.
All Francis did to further her cause, officials suggest, was sign on the dotted line.
Yet in other instances, Francis has effectively waved the two-miracle
rule, accepting only one, or even none, no fewer than eight times. In
select cases, that has served to speed up sainthood.
They include the case of Peter Faber, one of the founders of Francis’
own Jesuit order and a figure viewed as a personal hero of the pope.
Francis, on his own birthday, canonized Faber, earlier telling the
Catholic magazine America the reasons he found him so worthy.
It was, the pope said, because of Faber’s “dialogue with all, even
the most remote and even with his opponents, his simple piety, a certain
naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior
discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong
decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”