Sunday, January 16, 2011

John Paul II and the Process of Sainthood

A January 14 story from RNS reports that the late pope is closer than ever to sainthood.  If I understand it correctly, he has cleared the next to last hurdle, namely that of beatification, a difference from canonization only in terms of the extent and place the person may be venerated and invoked in prayer.   This stage to canonization was accomplished with the confirmation of a French nun's recovery from Parkinson's disease after "praying to John Paul."   Being a Lutheran the whole idea and process of canonization feels foreign to my theological orientation, and not a little uncomfortable.  Although we willingly recognize certain 'heroes of the faith' by special commemorations in the church's calendar, calling some even by the title "saint" (e.g. Saint Peter), such is done in the spirit of honoring of memory and example.  While the Lutheran church does recognize that those who departed this life to be with Christ may indeed intercede for us, we have neither the command nor the invitation to initiate prayer directly to them.  Thus, as a Lutheran I respectfully offer my reluctance to connect the dear nun's intercessions and John Paul's saintly abilities.  That she was healed I need not doubt.  How and why she was is another matter.  My response is to give God all glory.

Despite my Lutheran hesitations on this issue, such does not disparage whatever good the late pope was able to accomplish in his life.  Again, this is not the issue, at least for me.  Without the invocation aspect of the cult of saints, sainthood seems to hold little necessity, for you do not need this designation to honor him.

Some are questioning that the process in John Paul's case is rushed and may set a dangerous precedent.  Pope John Paul II did, however, 'fast track' the canonization for Mother Theresa of Calcutta, already establishing the precedent for those figures popular with the masses.  Canonization, like many things in life, is filled with 'exceptions to the rule' and can be influenced by popular appeal.  Or so it appears from here.

In the end John Paul's canonization will have little to no impact on the Lutheran church, and our calendar, unlike that of Rome, will not change.  Nevertheless, the process itself remains a barrier of difference that separates these two communions and continue so.  I do not entertain the hope that Rome will ever change on this point, so I realistically realize that ecclesial union in this life is just as far from possibility as ever.


christenbrent said...

We RC have a different method of canonization than the EO's, and the Lutherans added Pope John XXIII to their calendar long before we RC did. Sainthood per se all three hold as a fact. What separates us is how we view that impact on the individual Christian still on earth. As we all see saints as role models, and no RC or EO is required to request the intercession of the saints, I see no reason why this issue would remain a stumbling block to reunion. Even Luther himself had continued love and respect for the saints, even if he did not request their intercession.

The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

Dear Christen,

Thank you for your comment and clarification. I am curious, however, which Lutheran calendar Pope John XIII is on to which you refer. I suspect it is one used by the ELCA, as the one used in the LCMS, as printed in our hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, does not include his name.

It is true that Luther loved and respected the saints, and also had a high regard for Mary, something past generations of Lutherans have not shared to the degree of the reformer. And as indicted in my post, we certainly do approve of remembering and honoring the great heroes of the faith that have gone before us. Our calendar is filled with a variety of minor festivals and commemorations honored a whole host of saints.

The primary issue (though not the only), then, is whether Rome's doctrine of the invocation of saints should serve as a barrier or "stumbling block" to "reunion." One issue the reformers had concerned the nature of "intercession" and how the church viewed the work of the saints. Their concern was whether a redemptive quality was ascribed to the saints and whether the merit of their work or sanctity merit added anything to our overall salvation. The reformers noted that there is no scriptural mandate to invoke the saints, and no promise that such action would bring anything of value to the Christian. Thus, the teaching of the invocation of the saints, from a Lutheran point of view, goes beyond the teaching of scripture. Since we are not in accord on what the Scripture teaches or promises, a division remains for which true reunion is not yet possible. This, even Rome would acknowledge.