Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Causes For Joy; Causes for Worry

(The Angelus, November, 2013)

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand once told me a story that I have often repeated in lectures and in print, but which I find especially useful to mention in the current issue of The Angelus . It concerned a canonization ceremony in Rome attended by her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and the great Catholic historian, Ludwig von Pastor. When the newly recognized saints were proclaimed, and the author of the forty volume History of the Popes turned to speak to the young philosopher, his face was bathed in tears of joy. This honest, scholarly chronicler of the myriad of intrigues, crimes, corruption, cowardice, and betrayal that have tragically played a major role in the human life of the Church could not but exult with his whole heart and his whole soul when the fruits of her divinity were once again made manifest. Amidst all the disillusionments of life---his own, and those of the centuries, documented and spread out before him on his desk at the Vatican Library---he remained a zealous, believing Catholic. He still believed in transformation in Christ, and the beneficent effects that the holiness of one person could have on everyone less advanced in the love of Our Savior within the union of His Mystical Body.

What is of central importance to me in this story is not its revelation of Pastor’s Catholic embrace of the reality of sanctity. Its crucial lesson for us---perhaps more than ever today---is the realization that that embrace came from a man who knew that the Church’s path to recognition of sanctity is a difficult and often crooked one; that it is accompanied by much human calculation and effort; and that while a great deal of this calculation and effort may be totally praiseworthy, not all of it is always without its unpalatable character and side effects. In short, while causes for canonization are in and of themselves causes for joy, some aspects of them, like all human endeavors, may well remind us of the impact of the mystery of iniquity and give us a certain cause for worry. Sad to say, I would argue that that cause of worry can sometimes be so great that even a Ludwig von Pastor might absent himself from the final ceremony of canonization without in any way abandoning his belief in the reality of sanctity as such.

Let us mention just two “facts of life” regarding causes for canonization that I believe will amply illustrate my point. One of these is the Church’s desire to use official proclamations of sanctity as a “teaching tool---at least during those all too rare moments in time when the Mystical Body of Christ has a clear program that she consciously wishes to emphasize to the faithful. The other is the significance in the whole process of well-organized and powerful “lobbies” pressing for---or against---the raising of a saint to the altar. Historical knowledge of both these factors is of tremendous value in understanding what does---or does not---happen with respect to recognition of a sanctity that may be given by God regardless of whether the Church openly proclaims it on earth or not.

A perfect example of the use of canonization as a teaching tool---and one that summarizes the character of such an enterprise up until our own troubled age---is the entire set of seven canonizations that took place during the pontificates of Paul V (1605-1621) and Gregory XV (1621-1623) between the years 1608 and 1622. What one finds here is a guide to everything that had proven to be needed to rise above the confusion and corruption of the late Middle Ages, reform the Church, and battle the Protestant Revolution; a guide, also, to each and every tool that would always be needed to if Christendom were to stay on an even keel.

This holistic teaching began to unfold on May 29th, 1608, with Paul V’s canonization of Francesca Romana (1384-1440), who was born during the horrors of the Great Western Schism and lived to see the restoration of unity and the final return of the Papacy to her native city. A woman of both mystical fervor as well as highly practical charitable activity, Francesca represented the importance of steadfast embrace of the entirety of the Christian vision of intense personal prayer and public Catholic action. For even in times of the most terrible turmoil, such as those through which she passed, the believer who wishes to serve Christ must cherish both these expressions of the lived Faith.

Alas, there was no way that Francesca Romana’s personal example alone could bring about the “reform of head and members” so desired by late medieval thinkers. More authoritative organizational involvement was required for solid Catholic revival, and this did not follow until further disaster befell a still “sleeping” Church. The Council of Trent was the most important sign of the arrival of this much-needed authoritative intervention.

No one took the measures emerging from Trent more seriously than Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), the young Cardinal nephew of Pope Pius IV. Borromeo’s subsequent pastoral labors in Rome for the Holy See, and even more importantly, those accomplished as Archbishop of Milan, then served prelates throughout Christendom as a model for the practical administrative stimulation of that union of prayer and action represented by Francesca Romana as an individual. Paul V canonized Borromeo for his heroic virtue on November 1, 1610, but it was the exemplary episcopal activity that flowed therefrom that provided the teaching tool that the Church desperately needed to recommend to prelates the world over.

Pope Gregory XV’s “Great Canonization” of 12 March, 1622 brilliantly completed the general lesson being taught through the holiness of the Church’s worthy sons and daughters. Four of the saints “made” on that splendid day were glorious representatives of the work of the Catholic Reformation as a whole. Through Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and Philip Neri (1515-1595) a kaleidoscope of very diverse and innovative spiritual and educational activities undertaken on behalf of all social classes by the Jesuits and Oratorians were simultaneously blessed. The addition of Theresa of Avila (1515-1582) once more served to indicate the central importance of prayer and mystical union with Christ to any and all Church revival. Finally, the inclusion of Francis Xavier (1506-1552) showed that the Catholic enterprise was one that missionaries were obliged to spread to the very ends of the earth.

Isidore the Laborer (c. 1070-1130), a Spanish commoner who died in the twelfth century, might, at first glance, seem to be “the odd man out” in our list of contemporary figures of heroic virtue. This is false, and not merely because his inclusion, along with Ignatius, Theresa, and Francis Xavier, indicates the practical importance of Spain for the success of the Catholic Reformation. Aside from the reality of his holiness, Isidore is there for a reason that the Roman Church has been eager to emphasize since the central Middle Ages: the urgent call of everyone to a life of sanctity. It was this that motivated Abbot Odo of Cluny (c. 878-942) to write his Life of St. Gerald of Aurillac (c. 855-902), which demonstrated that soldiers could gain holiness through a proper Christian application of their particular military vocation. It was this that convinced Innocent III---whose whole work as pontiff was designed, as one of his books indicates, to bring about “the marriage of earth with heaven”---to canonize Homobonus (d. 1197), a bourgeois saint who is the patron of businessmen. And it was this same call of everyone to union with Christ that gave the Feast of All Saints Day the importance and popularity that it so readily deserves.

It is a blessing that the Church periodically goes on these periodic “teaching campaigns”, since the second “fact of life” regarding the process of canonization tends to lead to the proclamation of the sainthood only of those who have a powerful lobby behind them. Such lobbying has traditionally favored men and women of heroic virtue who come from religious orders, rich dioceses, and politically important aristocratic families, leaving “ordinary” holy men and women in obscurity.

As incomplete in number as this may leave the number of recognized members of the Communion of Saints, at least it does not necessarily indicate anything untoward as such. Much more dangerous is the lobbying that is done for men who are indeed worthy of being proclaimed saints, but mostly for the purpose of utilizing them for bad purposes. King Philip the Fair’s campaign for the canonization of Louis IX comes readily to mind in this respect; a canonization designed, in his mind, to lend an aura of sanctity to the entire Capetian Dynasty, bless his own anticlerical actions, and serve as a stick to batter Pope Boniface VIII for opposing him. Perhaps equally unfortunate is the parochial-minded work done by one religious order to prevent the canonization of men from another, rival group of regular clergy. Here the manifold assaults on any Church action favoring Jesuits and their methodology stand out. This is paralleled by the organized labors of nations and political factions to stifle the causes of Churchmen deemed hostile to the rights of the State. One of the long-term targets of such self-interested secular forces was Pope Gregory VII, who, because of his exaltation of the role of the Papacy in public life was only raised to the altars in 1728---643 years after his death.

There are, of course, two other more recent names that share a similar and continuing fate at the hands of “the world”: Popes Pius IX and XII. Both of these men have enemies who outdo even those of Gregory VII in lobbying against their eventual canonization. Is it because these opponents doubt both popes’ heroic virtue? Hardly. It is the message that Pius IX and Pius XII represent---the message encapsulated in everything from the Syllabus of Errors to the encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ and Humani Generis ---that stirs their wrath. It is this message that they feel compelled to stop from being blessed along with its teachers. And it is precisely this trenchant resistance to the idea of the transformation of all things in Christ and the men associated with it that make the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II a most unfortunate leap into the abyss.

I am not arguing against the heroic virtue of either of the two more recent pontiffs. Quite frankly, I do not know much about their personal lives, nor would I be personally in any way competent to judge them if I did. What I, as a Catholic, am fully entitled to state is my opinion regarding the message regarding their pontificates that those powerful lobbies working to secure their canonization want the Church systematically to promote along with it. It is not a message of admiration for their personal sanctity. It is a message of anti-Syllabus of Errors and anti-Kingship of Christ content that requires the exclusion of consideration of Pius IX and Pius XII as candidates for canonization---and exclusion of respect for the full Catholic Tradition in the daily life of the Church along with them. Such exclusion of everything these two men stood for has brought about the disaster of the past half century, and ought not to be “blessed” as a teaching tool for the future.

I hope and pray that both John XXIII and John Paul II are indeed in heaven and praying for the Church Militant below. But I do not think that I could shed the same tears that von Pastor did in the presence of von Hildebrand so many years ago, were I to be present in Rome next April. The “facts of life” accompanying the process of their canonization make their cause more a cause of worry to me than a cause for joy. I dare to say that von Pastor, who could never have imagined the state the Church is in today, might well have played hooky also.

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