After recently conferring sainthood on two former popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, Pope Francis has announced plans to move yet another, Paul VI, closer to a halo of his own by beatifying him on Oct. 19. In Catholic chatter these days, one can detect some blowback to this rash of pontiff saints: Why doesn’t Francis find some laity, especially women, to honor?
Noted American Catholic writer Paul Elie, for instance, expressed the hope that honoring John XXIII and John Paul II would “get the business of papal canonizations out of the way.”
“Now it’s time for the church to consider the saintliness of lay people, married people and parents in particular,” Elie said in April.
To some extent, however, such reactions may reflect the celebrity status of popes more than the substance of Francis’ approach, because he already has advanced the sainthood prospects of a striking number of both laity and women.
Naturally, a communicator as adept as Pope Francis must realize that until he finds a captivating candidate for sainthood who symbolizes the new direction in which he’s pointing the Church, one which makes the world take note about the importance of women and laity, his choices will probably resonate only with insiders. Nonetheless, the sainthood causes he’s advanced so far do not reflect a pope determined to celebrate only those at the top of the clerical ladder.
The new pope kicked off his saint-making with a bang, celebrating a canonization Mass in May 2013 for Antonio Primaldo and 812 other Italians martyred in the 15th century. In one fell swoop, Francis thereby almost doubled the total number of new saints canonized by Pope John Paul II, who set the all-time record for awarding halos during his almost 27-year papacy.
Primaldo was a lay man and an artisan, killed along with other mostly lay residents of the city of Otranto during a period of Turkish occupation.
The decision to name those saints, however, had been made under Pope Benedict XVI. In terms of causes for which he’s personally responsible, Francis has moved the ball for 410 candidates since his election.
A surprisingly high share, roughly 35 percent, has been made up of women, and almost half have been laity. Those lay candidates for sainthood include, for instance, 124 Korean martyrs from the 19th century who will be beatified in a major public ceremony during Francis’ trip to South Korea scheduled for August.
Sainthood procedures in the Catholic Church begin with a popular following, and it’s up to officials of the local church to conduct a preliminary review. Once the case reaches Rome, a pope can move it forward in one of five basic ways:
• Approving a “decree of heroic virtue,” which certifies that someone led a holy life and is worthy of the title “venerable.”
• Authenticating a miracle tied to the candidate, a prerequisite for beatification, the final stage before sainthood.
• Authenticating a second miracle that allows someone to be canonized, the formal act of enrolling them as a saint.
• Acknowledging someone as a martyr, meaning they were killed for the faith, which eliminates the requirement for a miracle and allows for immediate beatification.
• Dispensing with the miracle requirement and enrolling someone directly as a saint, which Francis did in December, for instance, with the 16th century Jesuit priest Peter Faber.
Three-quarters of instances in which Francis has issued one of these decrees have involved large groups of people. In addition to the Korean martyrs, Francis acknowledged in March 2013 the martyrdom of 47 Catholics killed during the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, and in June 2013 he did the same thing for another group of 64 Catholics killed during the same span.
In the 109 cases in which causes have been advanced for single individuals, 38 have been women, representing 35 percent.
The list of female honorees under Pope Francis includes a mix of relatively well-known individuals, such as Queen Maria Cristina of Savoy, and the fairly obscure, such as Maria Rocío de Jesús, a nun born in Spain in 1923 who died in Italy in 1956. Francis approved a miracle for the former in May 2013, and signed a decree of heroic virtue for the latter in February 2014.
Most of these female sainthood candidates have been nuns, many the founders of the religious order to which they belonged. (Technically that still makes them laity, since under church law only men are eligible for ordination as clergy, though ordinary Catholics typically don’t consider a nun to be a lay person.)
For instance, Francis bypassed the miracle requirement in April to declare Maria Guyart, known by her religious name of Marie of the Incarnation, as a saint. Guyart was the founder of the Ursuline nuns in Quebec in the 17th century, and was a pioneer in the education of Canada’s indigenous population.
The pontiff did the same thing in October 2013 for Angela of Foligno, a 13th century mystic considered one of the great visionaries and spiritual writers of the Middle Ages. She also founded a religious order of women, but one that refused to accept the medieval custom of nuns living in enclosure so they could go out and serve the poor.
Such cases are known as an “equivalent canonization” because there’s no ceremony in St. Peter’s Square to mark the addition of a new saint.
A handful of cases under Francis, however, involve women who didn’t belong to a religious order. They include Sílvia Cardoso Ferreira da Silva, a Portuguese social activist known for her defense of poor and sick children, and Elisabetta Sanna, an 18th and 19th century Italian lay woman who was active in the circles around St. Vincent Pallotti, an urban missionary and forerunner of the push for Christian unity.
Francis has signed decrees of heroic virtue in both cases.
Though most of the individual men whose cases have advanced under Francis have been priests, there are also several lay honorees.
They include Attilio Luciano Giordani, who worked for the Pirelli tire company in post-World War II Italy and who was active in his local parish as a teacher of religion, as well as Jerzy Ciesielski, a Polish layman who was a close friend of the future Pope John Paul II and who helped found the Focolare movement in Poland, a group primarily of laity devoted to promoting unity across confessional divides. Both men were married and the fathers of three children.
Francis signed a decree of heroic virtue for Giordani, giving him the title “Venerable,” in October 2013, and did the same for Ciesielski in December.
In December 2013, Francis recognized the martyrdom of Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, a lay catechist who was killed in Myanmar (Burma) in 1950. In March, Francis recognized the heroic virtue of Luigi Rocchi, an Italian layman who died in 1979 after being paralyzed for 28 years with severe muscular dystrophy, and who today is known as the “wheelchair saint.”
Granted, none of these figures are likely to draw more than a million devotees to Rome for a sainthood ceremony like the April 27 canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, nor is the Vatican likely to organize a series of events celebrating their legacies as they did for the two former popes, and as it will probably do again for Pope Paul VI.
That distinction, however, says at least as much about the star power of pontiffs as it does about the actual distribution of sainthood cases. For those wondering when this “people’s pope” will find some laity and women to lift up, in other words, the answer is that he already has.John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook.