Marching In: Pope John Paul II and the Nature of Sainthood
By Leslie Scrivener

With the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII upon us, the Roman Catholic tradition of sainthood is in the news again. But in our increasingly secular, science-focused times, doesn't the very notion of someone being a saint, residing in heaven with God and capable of securing miracles, seem more than a little quaint -- even to many Catholics? Or can saints still teach all of us how to lead loving, meaningful lives? Journalist Leslie Scrivener explores these and other questions in her new Star Dispatches ebook, Marching In: John Paul II and the Nature of Sainthood. And she introduces readers to some of the smartest, strangest, most self-abnegating or kindest people among the 10,000-strong ranks of the super-holy.

Single copies of Star Dispatches eReads can be purchased for $2.99 at or

Marching In: Pope John Paul II and the Nature of Sainthood

A Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square with a pope who would be named a saint. It was years ago, but something swept over me that day in Rome that I’ve never fully understood or forgotten.

The sun was bright and Cardinals in their red robes wore sunglasses, as did many in the crowd of 50,000 who were waving olive and palm branches.

The words of the service seemed more poignant in Italian: “Dio mio, perche mi hai abbandonato?” (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) Statues of saints atop the colossal ring of columns that form Bernini’s great colonnade looked down, embracing the throng in a visual metaphor. Some were unknowns: St. Celsus and St. Rufus. Others were heroes of the church: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis de Sales, the namesake of my childhood school in West Virginia.

It was a morning of extraordinary theatre — everything was grand and oversized — that stimulated every sense. After receiving communion from John Paul II, who was in a much-diminished state from Parkinson’s disease, I returned to my seat, inexplicably in tears. Many of the young Canadians in a World Youth Day delegation were shaking with emotion. I looked at the woman next to me, a former ambassador — surely she would know how to remain composed — but she was in tears, too. I wanted to ask her what had made her weep, but her head was bowed.

What was the emotion? Was it a profound sense of being in the presence of saintliness? Or something harking back to my Catholic youth — a yearning for a moment’s grace?

This scene has come back to me as preparations are underway to canonize — or designate as saints — John Paul and Pope John XXIII in that same majestic setting on April 27. As an off-and-on Catholic who mostly did not practise the faith, I was puzzled by the experience I seemed to share with others that April Sunday morning. Was it a manifestation of mass psychology, something that occurred among an emotionally supercharged group of people who loved the Pope and even then believed in his saintliness?

“The music the crowds, the atmosphere, the sharing of the limbic systems that regulate emotions?” suggested Christine Fletcher, a theology professor at Benedictine University, near Chicago, when I asked her recently about this.

As I ponder my experience at St. Peter’s back in 2001, the whole issue of sainthood also comes to mind — and questions arise. In our increasingly secular, skeptical and science-focused times, does the very notion of someone being a saint, in possession of an exalted holiness and residing in heaven with God, not seem more than a little quaint, even to many faithful Roman Catholics?

Then there’s the issue of how much political motivation — along with a kind of marketing mentality — might play in declaring people saints. Unlike early in the church’s history, it now seems that virtually every pope is destined for sainthood. Some theologians say that speeding a pope to sainthood effectively suppresses any criticism of him. And certainly the newest canonization seems designed in marketing heaven, with something for Catholics at both ends of the political spectrum. John Paul, the dynamic Polish pope who played a role in the downfall of Communism and died in 2005, appeals to conservatives. Fatherly John XXIII, who introduced the Second Vatican Council (its reforms included mass in the local language instead of Latin and ecumenical outreach), and who died in 1963, appeals to progressive Catholics.

“It’s political,” says Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian at Fordham University in New York, “where you are satisfying both the left and right wing of the church. The problem is, two popes, the hierarchical mode, two celibate men.”

Meanwhile, the concept of miracles, which are a prerequisite for sainthood, is especially difficult in our intensely rational age. Some Catholic theologians, including Johnson, and even a cardinal, Tarcisio Bertone (who has called miracles “anachronistic”), have proposed an end to the miracle requirement and a greater focus on a person’s goodness.

The miracles, almost all of which turn out to be medical in nature, must have occurred posthumously and as a result of someone praying exclusively to the future saint. The effects must have been immediate and lasting, and apparently impossible to explain by science or medical intervention. Miracles weren’t essential for sainthood in the early church and only became formalized as papal power was centralized after the 12th century.

In an era of intense scientific inquiry, miracles — including one attributed to saint-to-be Mother Teresa (more on this below) — have been widely called into question. What’s more, Catholics these days are more inclined to think critically about what the Vatican does and whom it designates a saint.

Brenda Brunelle, a Windsor woman who in 2012 opened the first Canadian chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, contends that Pope John Paul II and other senior clergy “turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the problem.” Abusive priests should have been defrocked, she says, and bishops who covered up their crimes should have been held accountable.

“I was really disappointed. I had great hopes for John Paul . . . He had the power and the position to attract the attention of the public at large and he could have used that power to protect future generations. To me that’s not a saint. He’s unworthy of sainthood.”