Andrew Brown for Robbie Millen Monday, 04 June 2001

The immense crowds that have been gathering in Ireland to venerate the coffin of St Therese of Lisieux — it is estimated that three fifths of the entire population will have seen her gold-encrusted coffin before it leaves the island at the end of the month — show that the mysterious attraction of sainthood persists into the 21st century even in countries where Christian practice has largely been abandoned. No-one could seem a more unlikely candidate for fame than a girl who left the world at 17 for an enclosed order and died of TB only seven years later. Yet she still retains a hold on the popular imagination: in fact its clear that saints can survive long after all the rest of a religion has disappeared.

In part this is because they are the timeless equivalent of modern celebrities: people who seem to exist more vividly, more perfectly, than the rest of us. Some saints, in fact, have every merit except that of existence: there was a considerable purge in the last century which led to the disappearance of popular saints such as St George and St Christopher, neither of whom may have existed at all; though there is a tradition, maintained by the historian Edward Gibbon, that St George was in fact a corrupt military contractor in fifth century Alexandria. St Christopher, too, whose image dangles from uncounted keyrings, has been removed from the calendar of siants as a legend, though this does not seem to diminish the faith that drivers have in him.

In official Catholic doctrine, everyone who has reached heaven is a saint; and the proclamation of sainthood is only the church announcing that someone is definitely now enjoying the delights of heaven after the exercise of "heroic virtue". But the saints who catch the popular imagination are those who seem to take their virtues to an extreme. The purest modern example is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She is due to be beatified as quickly as possible, perhaps even this year; and in a large part that is a result of her global fame as being the most compassionate human being it is possible to be. This was not entirely apparent to journalists: the only time I ever met her, she grasped my hand, looked at me with absolute sincerity, and, as I braced myself for something really profound and life-changing, she said only "Tell your readers that contraception murders love". But belief in her enriches the way we can think about human beings, and no amount of journalistic debunking will change that.

St Therese of Lisieux, whose remains are being venerated around Ireland, is another example of someone whose personality seems to enlarge the boundaries of what a human being might be, by showing how joy can flower in even the most unpromising circumstances. But the two St Teresas are examples of the rare saints whose attractions reaches out far beyond the circles of the faithful. By far the greatest number of saints in the church are known only to the devout, and their significance lies partly in the sphere if internal politics — any self-respecting order of priests needs to have had a saint for a founder –- and partly in the way in which they offer examples of ways in which very different people can become almost perfect Catholics.

Pope John Paul II — who will himself almost certainly be canonised in due course – has made more use of saints than other pope in history. He has in fact made more saints than all of his predecessors put together: 447 have been proclaimed under his pontificate, and more than 1237 candidates beatified, which is the first step to sainthood. Many of these new saints have been part of a conscious strategy to establish the church on his travels, in places where it seems to have few roots. Thus he has made 117 Vietnamese saints, and 103 Korean ones. There may well by now be more Vietnamese saints than there are British ones.

There is hardly a country this Pope has visited where he has not beatified or canonised someone. This practice goes back to the very roots of sainthood as an institution, in the third and fourth centuries AD, when early Christian communities started to venerate their founders, so that everywhere where Christians were found would have a patron saint, who had introduced the faith there. First his tomb and then his relics would be venerated too, for it was felt that holiness clung to everythign the saint had touched. Thin, in die course, came the miracles. Even Santa Claus,. When he was plain St Nicholas, raised three little children from the dead. To make a native saint mixes piety with local patriotism in a way which reinforces for both. It is similar to the way in which the Vatican will pronounce patron saints for every trade, so that everyone who works will know there is a pattern of holiness for just their job. Journalists, who must need more supernatural attention than most, have three patron saints. The Internet has none not yet, though a hot candidate is St Isidore of Seville, who made one of the first great Christian encyclopaedias. Nor is there a saint for computer programmers: the closest to a debugger is St Gratus of Aosta, a fourth century deacon who is patron those who suffer from fear of insects.

Sometimes the life or martyrdom of a saint can be summed up so simply that their virtue becomes obvious. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered for a lethal injection in the concentration camp to save another man who had a family, is one such; another is the American Katherine Drexel, born into a rich white family in the nineteenth century, who gave her life and a considerable fortune — fifty million dollars in 1930 — to the service of black and native American children.

But John Paul II has also made a number of deeply controversial saints, whose elevation is as much a sign of theological struggles within the Vatican as it is an encouragement to the ordinary faithful. The most celebrated example is Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the rich., right-wing and secretive movement Opus Dei, whose canonisation has been hurried through to the dismay, verging on horror, of many liberals. But there were also moves to beatify Pius XII, the Pope of the Forties and Fifties, who was the last Pope to treat the world as if he were its undeclared emperor. These seem to have been ended by John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope, which attacked Pius’ record in dealing with the Nazis, and his failure to speak out unequivocally to rescue the Jews.

John Paul II has, however, made one saint of a candidate who upset some Jews: Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun who died in Auschwitz, was killed as a Christian, the Catholic Church believes. But she was also Jewish, which has led to accusations that she was really a Jewish martyr appropriated by the Christians.

The obvious counterbalance to such candidates would be the British Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose thought tremendously influenced the reforming Second Vatican Council, but he is waiting for a miracle. He died in 1890, but attempts to have him canonised only started in earnest in 1958, and they proceeded so slowly that nothing much had been achieved in 1976, when the then Pope wanted to canonise him. However, the Pope alone can do nothing in such cases. The requirements of the bureaucracy are stringent. There is a special department in the Vatican, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, which since 1588 has done nothing but sift the evidence for a particular candidate’s sainthood. It took six years for the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham to get together a 9,000 page dossier on Newman’s life, which was forwarded to the Congrgation in 1986. It took the Vatican only another five years to digest this material, and then to proclaim that Newman had indeed shown "heroic virtue". But that is only the first, and in some ways the easiest of the hurdles that a candidate for sainthood must clear.

"Heroic virtue" says simply that the candidate looks like a saint to human eyes. The crucial question for the church is whether he is funcitoning as a saint by answering prayers, or at least forwarding them to the appropriate authority, and the only evidence for this is supplied by medically attested miracles. To become a "blessed", which would permit him to be venerated in Birmingham, there must be evidence of a miracle performed after prayers to the candidate. The next stage, full canonisation, requires a further miracle. It used to need two, but Pope John Paul II halved this figure. But the practical part of the exam remains anyway. Fr Gregory Winterton, who is in charge of Newman’s cause in Rome, says "It is reasonable enough, since Newman himself wrote two books in defence of miracles, to demand this of him." Fr Winterton is optimistic: the more people are praying for Newman’s aid, the more likely it is that a miracle will be reported, and in due course attested by the doctors who work for the Congregation. Last week he had a request for prayer cards from Japan.

The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints is one of the smaller Vatican departments, and must be one of the most hard-working. It has 30 cardinals, supported by a full-time staff of 22. At the moment there are more than 2000 cases working their way through the process of examination, of which 200 are close to being presented to the Pope, who makes the final decision. About half of the saints made by the present Pope have been lay people, which is regarded as a tremendous liberalisation in Vatican circles.

Behind those who have been sainted in this century stands a pressing throng of martyrs. Last year, the church finally released an official count of the twentieth century martyrs, most of them victims of the Nazis or Communists: it came out at 13,000 names. Not all of these can or will be candidates for sainthood. None the less, it is clear that if any future Pope is as keen on saints as John Paul has been, there will be many hundreds to come in this coming century. As the world moves into a post-Christian and perhaps post-literate era, the saint remains, as she started, a hugely powerful symbol. We need to believe in pure goodness, even in Northern Ireland. The worship of saints was one of the things to which the Protestant refomers of the sixteenth century objected most strenously about Roman Catholicism: so strenuously in fact, that there are forty British Catholic saints who were martyred for their faith by Protestants. But the remains of Therese of Lisieux travelled around Northern Ireland for a week with no public protest. In its way, this was even odder, or more miraculous, than the huge crowds which her coffin has attracted in the South. Certainly the faithful will see it as a sign of her influence.

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