The five most controversial canonizations of John Paul’s pontificate were:

• Edith Stein, also known by her religious name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942), canonized October 11, 1998. Born a Jew, she was a philosopher and pupil of Edmund Husserl before converting to Catholicism at the age of thirty and becoming a Carmelite nun. Stein was arrested by the Nazis in Holland, as part of a nationwide sweep after the Dutch bishops publicly condemned anti-Semitism, and was executed at Auschwitz.

• The Chinese martyrs, canonized October 1, 2000. A group of 120 who died for the faith, consisting of 87 Chinese (83 of them laypeople) and 33 non-Chinese missionaries. The martyrdoms ranged from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, the bulk occurring during the anti-Western Boxer rebellion

• Padre Pio (1887-1968), born Franceso Forgione, canonized June 16, 2002. A wildly popular Italian Capuchin priest and a stigmatic who reportedly demonstrated many other paranormal powers including bilocation, clairvoyance, and miraculous cures.

• Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-1975), canonized October 6, 2002. A Spanish priest who in 1928 founded Opus Dei, a personal prelature composed of laypeople and priests devoted to leading exemplary lives in their ordinary daily routines.

• Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (1474-1548), canonized July 31, 2002. A Mexican Indian who experienced a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed as an Aztec princess. This apparition is now celebrated as Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. Associated with the event is a miraculous tilma or cloak, bearing a life-sized image of Mary.

Opposition to these canonizations was fierce. The case of the Chinese martyrs raised howls of outrage from the government in Beijing, which unleashed a barrage worthy of Mao’s most apoplectic discharges and perhaps unprecedented in any previous canonization. The Vatican’s action, Beijing thundered, “distorts and tramples on history, embellishes imperialism, is a calumny against the Chinese people, lovers of peace, wounds the Chinese’s feelings, and insults their dignity.” It might be worth mentioning that one of the martyrs, fourteen-year-old Anna Wang, was decapitated after singing “the door of heaven is open”; a nine-year-old boy and an infant were executed at the same time. Objections to Escrivá and Padre Pio, by contrast, for the most part focused on complaints about their behavior: Escrivá was accused of being ill-tempered, grasping, and abrupt with subordinates; Padre Pio of womanizing, faking his stigmata, and generally being a vulgar reactionary. Edith Stein’s main impediment seems to have been that she was born a Jew: If the Nazis killed her for being Jewish rather than for being Catholic, then she could not have been a martyr for the faith. Juan Diego, like the Chinese martyrs, was suspected of being an imperialist dupe, if not a wholly imaginary creation of duplicitous Catholic colonialists.

These arguments prove to have little merit. There seem to be some shadowy areas in the deportment of both Escrivá and Padre Pio, but — how shall I put it? — not all saints are perfect saints. Jerome possessed an acid tongue, a hot temper, and a famed lack of charity; Mother Teresa could be overbearing; Ignatius was headstrong. No real evidence exists, however, that any of these men and women wallowed in mortal sin. Flaws of temperament are not incompatible with Christian perfection, which consists, according to Thomas Aquinas, “in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of neighbor.” Heroic virtue, rather than a serene disposition, is what we ask of saints.

Hagiophiles (a neologism, but a useful one) will forever enjoy rehashing the details of these debates. In the opposition voices one discerns a glaring irony. Anyone familiar with the ideological currents within the Catholic Church will realize the five controversial canonizations involve saints who represent the mainstream of contemporary Catholicism—that body of thought most clearly expressed in Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution of the Church. John Paul II enthusiastically endorsed all five canonizations, and the elected saints show the mix of innovation and traditionalism that characterized his pontificate. Similarly, it is apparent that most of the protests arose in the so-called “liberal” or “left” sectors of the Catholic Church (one must bear in mind that these labels, applied to Catholic thought, can diverge sharply from their secular counterparts). Behind — or to be charitable, alongside — worries about Escrivá’s temper or Juan Diego’s reality lay political concerns, as proponents of a decentralized, progressive Church sought to block the elevation of candidates perceived to be representatives of a traditional, outmoded Catholicism.

And yet here, as so often in the history of the saints, the truth confounds all expectations. The liberal opposition seems caught in entrenched views of ethnic, religious, and cultural identity. Consider the case of Edith Stein. Is it true that a Jew cannot be a Catholic, that conversion is a violation of Jewish identity? This is a delicate and contentious subject, but the fact remains that many Jews have converted to Christianity and yet consider themselves still Jewish; they see Christianity as a culmination, rather than a violation, of their Jewishness.

The attack on Juan Diego as an imperialist dupe carries a similar message: that a real Indian cannot become a Catholic, that to do so would be to violate his Indian identity (the same argument, one notes, has been applied to the conversion of the great Sioux Indian and Catholic visionary, Nicholas Black Elk). Beijing’s complaints against the Chinese martyrs stem in part from a different sort of inflexibility, which we can justly term cultural xenophobia. And one senses in the objections to Padre Pio yet another form of cultural bigotry, manifested in a discomfort with peasant manners.

At the same time, the liberal opposition is, ironically, undercutting efforts to enhance the role of laity in the Church. Juan Diego was perhaps the most important layman in Mexican ecclesiastical history; Escrivá, as much as anyone in the twentieth century, worked to establish a model of lay Catholic holiness. The Church desperately needs an effective, sophisticated program of lay spirituality (something beyond the pablum offered in many or most RCIA programs); Opus Dei may not be the best solution, but it is an important first step.

Opposition to the canonizations arose largely from the elite rather than the masses. Indeed, it often came from non-Catholic sources. Who can doubt that the voice of the faithful spoke with irrefutable vigor and clarity in the canonizations of Padre Pio and Juan Diego? Up to ten million people lined the streets of Mexico City following Juan Diego’s canonization, and half a million attended Padre Pio’s canonization in St. Peter’s Square. All who favor letting the Catholic faithful speak must be gladdened by these canonizations….

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