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There's a saint for nearly everyone in the audience


A couple on a scooter ride past a poster in a street in Havana welcoming Pope Francis, who visits Cuba today

A couple on a scooter ride past a poster in a street in Havana welcoming Pope Francis, who visits Cuba today


A couple on a scooter ride past a poster in a street in Havana welcoming Pope Francis, who visits Cuba today

The Pope arrives in Cuba today as part of a trip that will also see him travel to the United States to canonise Junipero Serra, an 18th Century Spanish missionary who brought Catholicism to California's Native Americans.

This week too, it was announced that the canonisation of Irish Carmelite nun Brigid Teresa McCrory is to be set in train. The Tyrone native became a pioneer in the care of the elderly in the US in the 1920s, and her motto was "nobody dies alone", surely as pressing a concern today in end-of-life care as it was when she began her ministry.

Starting with the papacy of John Paul II, canonisations and beatifications have become more popular in the Church than perhaps at any time since the Middle Ages.

But, many ask, is saint-making still relevant to the 21st Century or is it the remnants of medieval piety?

When the Pole Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978, he inherited a Church reeling from division following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

His predecessor, Paul VI, had struggled to keep the Church together in what was often a pitched battle between liberals who wanted Catholicism to resemble more closely the Anglican Communion and conservatives who saw any new openness as a betrayal of Catholic tradition.

John Paul II saw saints as signposts for the faithful to model their lives on. This is why Catholic children have been encouraged for centuries to take the name of a saint at their confirmation - someone to look up to and to emulate.

Tellingly, he beatified, or declared blessed, 1,340 people and canonised 483 saints - more than all his predecessors put together. He saw saint-making as part of what he described as the "universal call to holiness" - the belief that sanctity in life is something that can be attained by everyone rather than a precious few.

While John Paul II was unshakably orthodox in his theology, he railed against a vision of the Church that saw nuns and priests as Catholics par excellence and the people in the pew those whose responsibility never stretched beyond pray, pay and obey.

He prioritised the canonisation of what he saw as ordinary people who had lived their faith extraordinarily. Women, men, mothers, fathers.

John Paul wanted to hammer home the message that the saints were not those who were perfect, but those who had the same cares and struggles as everyone else but persevered and drew strength and inspiration from their faith.

His Catholicism, honed under decades of harsh communist rule and cruel Nazi occupation, was gritty.

Just a couple of years after his election, he canonised fellow Pole Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the German death camp of Auschwitz after the married father had cried out: "My wife! My children!"

John Paul had very little use - or interest - in people who were other-worldly. He understood that Catholics lived in the world as it is, not some idealised vision of it. And he wanted to offer to them exemplars who had also lived in the contemporary world rather than pointing to icons from bygone eras.

In 1990, he beatified 24-year-old Italian Pier Giorgio Frassati, who had dedicated most of his young life to helping the poor and the forgotten. The Pope held up figures such as Frassati and challenged other young Catholics: "Do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium."

For the first time, under John Paul's prolific canonisation schedule, Catholics could see video footage of saints or hear recordings of their talks and messages.

In short, the saints became accessible.

Of course, canonisations are not just about honouring holiness - they can often be political statements.

In 2001, John Paul II beatified 233 Catholics who were killed in the 'red terror' of the Spanish Civil War. Benedict XVI followed suit by adding 498 Catholics who were killed during the same war and, most recently, in 2013, Pope Francis beatified 522 Spanish Catholics who perished during that turbulent period.

Leftists accused the Vatican of canonising one version of modern Spanish history while those supportive of the process said it was simply about acknowledging the anti-Catholic nature of part of the conflict.

Sometimes the Church's process of canonisation begins as a response to a popular movement. At the funeral of John Paul II in 2005, many pilgrims carried banners emblazoned with the slogan 'Santo subito' - "make him a saint now". And the prolific saint-maker was indeed raised to the altars in April last year.

Ecclesiastical politics often loom large, and Pope Francis seemed to be after a balancing act when he chose to canonise Pope John XXIII on the same day.

Pope John is revered by many liberal Catholics for calling the Second Vatican Council, while many conservative Catholics venerate John Paul II for excising what they see as confusion caused by the council.

It's a classic Catholic understanding of the saints - there's someone for everyone.

Michael Kelly is Editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper.

Irish Independent