Miracles were not a topic I expected to surface during our parish mission last month. But Father Tim referenced them with easy comfort.
“I’ve seen so many miracles in my fifteen years here,” he said. “Changes of heart, real conversions.” What, he implied, could be more miraculous?
Which brings us to the subject of canonization.
Supernatural miracles, long required for canonized Catholic saints, have had a storied role in the history of sainthood. Post-death miracles were mandated as a way of verifying that the potential saint was a friend of God and not a fraud or magician, and that her current address was indeed heaven.
In the centuries prior to John Paul II’s papacy, at least four miracles were required for sainthood, but in 1983 the pope lowered the requirement to two: one to be beatified, and a second to become a canonized saint. (Martyrs need only one miracle total.)
Pope Francis has gone still further, lifting the requirement for a second miracle for Pope John XXIII and dispensing the miracle requirement entirely for three other new saints.
Might the Church be moving toward eliminating the requirement for miracles? I hope so, for both theological and practical reasons.
Catholic theology of the saints is thin, essentially comprised of a few paragraphs in Lumen Gentium, some scholarly articles, and a few books. But those sources agree in ascribing three major roles to saints: companions/friends, examples of Christian life, and signs of Christian hope.
None of those roles require the miraculous.
Granted, part of the friend/companion role is saints’ intercession on our behalf, and this is usually when a saint’s miracles occur. But saintly intercession is rarely about the supernatural. When I ask for the prayers of saints, I seek the miracles Father Tim spoke of: conversion of heart, rejuvenated hope, perseverance in love. We can retain the value of intercessory prayer without demanding the supernatural.
There’s significant practical benefit to dropping the miracle requirement as well. Lumen Gentium describes saints as those who live out holiness in the concreteness of life, who demonstrate that holiness can flourish even in the unlikeliest of places.
Unfortunately, a perusal of canonized saints would have us believe that holiness flourishes largely in men’s religious orders and almost never in family life.
That disparity has many causes, but one is the cost of the canonization process, which runs somewhere around $250,000. Religious communities who want their founders recognized by the universal Church can scrape together the money. Cash-strapped laypeople and dioceses? Not so much.
Eliminating the requirement for miracles would remove the costs associated with those miracles’ verification and would make it more feasible for laypeople to be put forward as potential saints by their diocese or other supporters.
Perhaps Pope Francis’ recent dispensations will turn out to be the exception. But if they are a portent of the future, expect future saints to be greater in both number and diversity, and expect our Church to be stronger as a result.