What is a Saint?
John Hunwicke reviews the Calendar Girls (and boys)
What is a Saint? When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was ‘beatified’, the media reported that this was ‘the first step on the road to sainthood’. What is all this about?
The New Testament uses the Greek word translated as ‘saint’ for all baptized Christians; and rightly so. Through the waters of initiation in the great sacrament of Faith we are washed, sanctified and justified (1 Corinthians 6.11). But over the centuries the words which English renders as ‘saint’ have received a particular meaning which the BCP makes official for Anglicans: a person who is on some official list of ‘Saints’ and has ‘S’ or ‘St’ in front of their name. Makers of stained glass windows will tend to put haloes round their heads and in the Catholic tradition we will tend to think more in terms of asking them to pray for us (on the James 5.16b principle) than of praying for them; and might venerate their relics (on the Acts 19.12 principle) or seek them in pilgrimage; and will put them into the Calendar with their own Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for use on their ‘festival’. So the question I am really asking is about lists and how names get onto them?
Posh ladies, iffy martyrs
In the beginning there was no official process. Those whose sanctity is suggested by the pages of the New Testament did not need ‘canonization’ (in other words, ‘putting the name on the list’); but as the Church faced ambiguities (‘did X really die for Christ?’) about those admired as martyrs, and even greater possibilities for doubt about those who were not even martyrs but were suspected of sanctity, the formal structures of the Church became more involved. Thus we hear of a posh lady in North Africa in the fourth century who was told off by the Archdeacon because she venerated with a kiss, before she received Holy Communion, the relic of a ‘martyr’ who was as yet unapproved! Approval usually involved the judgement of a local bishop or a local primate. That worked well enough in the local context; but, given the ease with which the popularity of a saint could spread throughout the Christian global village (think of St Nicolas, St Martin, St George), the matter came to be regarded as best done at a level above the local and individual bishop. The popes were issuing decrees of canonization – usually expressing collegiality by doing so in synods or councils – from before the end of the first millennium; and something similar still happens in the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Medieval abuses led to prohibitions against any public veneration of a ‘saint’ without the authority of the Roman Church (note ‘public’; there’s nothing to stop you praying privately to your saintly grandmother, and I rather think that Orthodox are better at this easy commerce between earth and heaven than we westerners are).
But it was centuries before, even in the centralizing West, local saint-making became totally obsolete. And that is where ‘beatification’ comes in. A bishop might approve for use within his own diocese the feast-day, with texts for Mass and Office (‘autorizzazione all’ ufficiatura’) of a local holy person; but he/she would be called beatus (blessed) rather than Sanctus (saint) – and this was ‘beatification’. The last recorded episcopal example happened in Belgium as late as 1603. In 1634 Urban VIII finally reserved beatification, as well as canonization, to the Holy See; but for several decades beatification remained at Rome simply the low-key granting of permission for a very restricted cultus. The first recognizable ‘ceremony of beatification’ was that of St Francis de Sales in 1662; the reading of a decree in St Peter’s; Te Deum/veneration of the icon; censing of the relics; High Mass sung by (not the Pope but) a bishop.
Iffy Popes, iffy Emperors
Even Rome has not found it easy to be clinically consistent about who has been legally and properly put on the list of Saints and who has not. In 1165 Charlemagne was canonized by Paschal III, but – oops – Paschal was an antipope. Nevertheless Charlemagne received local cultus in quite a lot of places for quite a long time. Benedict XIV privately took the view ‘let’s cut our losses and regard him as a beatus.’ During the Great Schism of the West, Catherine of Sienna was on the ‘Urbanist’ side and Vincent Ferrer on the ‘Clementine’; so one or the other of them was out of communion with whichever of two rival claimants was the ‘authentic’ pope; but each of them ended up being canonized. It is not difficult to find other examples of Rome accepting as saints holy men and women whose status, as far as full communion with the Roman Pontiff is concerned, is a more than a little dubious.
Take those heroic souls who died under Henry VIII. Undoubtedly they died – and horribly – for ‘the old faith’. But did they all take care to refrain from receiving the sacraments from clergy who had associated themselves with Henry’s schism? Were they careful only to receive communion and absolution from clergy who had been absolved from schism? They would have had trouble doing this, since it was not until 1574 that young men started to arrive from the seminaries on the continent with faculties to ‘reconcile’. The Henrician martyrs are accurately thought of (if a trifle anachronistically) as Anglican papalists. And some of them were not even that. Blessed John Beche, Abbot of Colchester, specifically denied papal authority, but he had been a little unhurried about surrendering his abbey to the Crown. Yet in 1886 Leo XIII beatified equipollently (namely, on the ground that they had received de facto cultus: their portraits had been tainted with haloes in the chapel of the English College) thirty-eight of these martyrs. Further east, in 1958 the senior hierarch, worldwide, in full communion with the pope, Patriarch Maximus IV, Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch authorised a Calendar including individuals canonized by Orthodox Churches (and subsequent to the 1634 decree reserving all canonizations and Beatifications to Rome) down to St Seraphim of Sarov, who died in 1833 and was canonized by the Russian Church in 1903.
Interestingly, it was not until 1992 that a coherent ecclesiological account was given by Rome which can be employed to account for these apparently untidy loose ends. A document (Communionis Notio) was issued by Joseph Ratzinger explaining that Christian bodies with valid ministries and sacraments are ‘true particular churches’, albeit ‘wounded’ by their separation from Rome. So the theology is all lined up enabling Rome, when Orthodoxy emerges from its sulks, to affirm the eccelesial acts of the Orthodox Churches (including canonizations) during the period of separation.
As members of the dear old Church of England, we recall that since 1662 the calendar in BCP has honoured Charles Stuart as a ‘red-letter day’ and until 1859 Mass and Office used to be provided for him (in that year authority for the special services was removed but the Act of Uniformity has never been amended to remove his entry from the Calendar.) The texts provided for him avoided the term ‘Saint’ but referred to him as ‘Blessed’. And, curiously, the procedure involved – autorizzazione all’ ufficiatura –is closely similar to the Roman beatifications before 1662. (And the concept of equipollence might be relevant here.) Should we regard him as a ‘beatus’? And Common Worship in 1997 listed as optional ‘Lesser festivals’ about 24 individuals who were never canonized or accorded saintly status. Are they also beati? Some of them are a bit rum.
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