Sainthood – not just for Catholics 30 June 2014

Phil Morgan believes the lives of newly-appointed saints Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II hold important lessons for Christians and others alike.

St Peter's Square, Vatican City

St Peter’s Square in Vatican City


On the 27th April, thousands gathered in Rome for a historic event. A double canonisation of two popes, overseen by two popes. In Catholic terms, it had to be a first despite the church’s long and well documented history.

It was Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II who were made saints, the former known as a great reformer, and the latter as a pious and peaceful soul who touched millions. As a non-Catholic Christian, it may seem strange for me to admire the ritual and ceremonies that mark sainthood, but I am well and truly in awe of them. Naturally, Protestant theology and Catholic theology are at odds about the meaning and role of sainthood, but there is more to it than dogma.

I believe many Christians, Catholic or otherwise, could do with reconnecting with the Christian tradition of saints, and the canonisation of the two Popes reminds us it is not simply a historic concept. Saint George’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day are widely celebrated, but reduced to largely patriotic displays of national belonging and empty of any theological significance. There is however, so much meaning in sainthood.

At the most basic level, the word saint comes from the Latin word sanctus from which we also get the word sanctified. A saint is, as the root word implies, someone who has been made holy through their own spiritual effort and devotion, someone who achieved a sense of purity and sacredness, and someone who has a certain touch of divinity about them.

The saints are, perhaps more than anything, an example of how to live like Christ in the world. They are people who embodied the virtues extolled by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. Saints are peacemakers, the merciful, pure in heart and thus they are blessed. Who can deny that Saint and Pope John Paul II lived a life full of these virtues? And what is most touching for me is he did so in the public eye. No one can accuse him of being made more than he was by overzealous biographers, and it reminds us too that we can, and must, live life full of these values.

The saints are also ascetics. Asceticism has fallen out of favour in modern Christianity, but perhaps in the incredibly materialistic world in which we live, it is of even more importance than ever. The saints, both new and old, renounced amassing wealth for themselves and instead lived a life devoted to serving Christ, the Bible and the poor. I don’t believe being a good Christian necessarily means living a life of destitution, but nor do I believe a Christian should enter into a world of wealth without being cautious for his or her soul. When I’ve struggled with the world and its inequity, I’ve often found solace reading the lives of saints, who embraced poverty as a means of nearness to God.

Perhaps the most important thing saints can teach us is that God still works in the world. “Why doesn’t God come down to Earth anymore?” my son once asked me. It certainly feels like a valid question. The Old Testament is full of miracles and divine intervention; the Gospels are witness to the greatest act of divine intervention possible. But after that? It can sometimes feel like we’ve been living in an era of ‘divine radio silence’ ever since.

Not so however if you look towards the countless saints of the past two millennia. Saint George slaying the dragon may be somewhat of an embellishment, but the message behind such stories is valid; that demons can be overcome, that God can and will intervene, that goodness can prevail in the most astonishing ways – these are all messages that are at the heart of the Bible and must be remembered.

So back to the canonisation of the two Popes. I may not be Catholic, I may not ask the newly-declared saints for intercession, but I will be reflecting on their lives and their mission and what I can learn from two of the greatest Christians of the twentieth century.

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About Phil Morgan

Phil Morgan is an MA student in Religious Studies at the Open University with an interest in late Christian history.

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