Sunday, May 1, 2011

Regarding Beatification

The late Pontifex Maximus, John Paul II, is to be beatified, it seems.  He is apparently being beatified in record time.  One may wonder why, but one may also wonder what it means to be beatified.

As I understand it, beatification like canonization is in the nature of a papal decree.  It is a decree that a person may be considered a candidate for canonization, i.e. for sainthood.  The decree of canonization is essentially a papal statement that a particular person is a saint, may be referred to as one by the faithful, take his/her place presumably in the liturgy, and may have a day set aside for him/her to be celebrated in some fashion.  It is also formal reassurance that the saint is, indeed, a saint and is safely ensconced in heaven.  At least in the old days, saints could be asked to intercede with God.

My favorite saint has always been St. Christopher.  As I recall the story, Jesus in the form of a child decided for some reason to demand that Christopher carry him across a river, and Christopher did so even though Jesus, rather mischievously, increased his weight as he was carried along making it more and more difficult for Christopher to accomplish his task.  I received a St. Christopher medal when I was a child.  I wear it to this day.  I'm not sure why.  But I think this is due in part to the fact that St. Christopher has been in some sense demoted by the Church, and I resent him being singled out in this fashion.

Regardless of one's faith, beatification and canonization seem to be relatively little more than a papal stamp of approval.  If John Paul II is in heaven, he is presumably there regardless of the decree of any of his successors.  If he was a holy man peculiarly honored by God, he was or is so even if he should be condemned by a pope.  He requires no reassurance in these respects.

Beatification and canonization, then, constitute a kind of certification that a dead person may (and I suppose should) be honored  in a certain way by the faithful.  I think it is another way the Church mimics, as it were, the Roman Empire it eventually came to absorb.  Emperors and others were declared divine by the appropriate authority, usually the senate.  This was a way of honoring them.  It came to be expected on the death of an Emperor.  Vespasian it's said joked about it on his deathbed.:  "Dear me, I seem to be becoming a god."  Some Emperors declared themselves to be divine while they lived.  Emperor worship was required as time passed, in the provinces at least.  Certain Emperors, though, were honored more than others.  It seems to have been very much a political practice.

And although nobody may be declared a god in these enlightened times, beatification and canonization seem very much a political practice now.  Poland is said to be "joyful" about the beatification.  The Church has apparently made a policy decision that it requires more saints, and is churning them out, even dispensing with the need for an advocatus diaboli.   The Church believes that modern heroes are required, and it may be that it is not wrong; we seem to like having heroes.  Certainly secular authorities have in effect decreed that certain leaders are to be treated as heroes in the past, even in modern times, e.g., Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao.

Whatever beatification is, then, it should be treated seriously.  It is a means by which power and influence are exercised; it has an effect even in the modern world. 

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