In the course of Pope Benedict’s funeral ceremonies, the question arose as quickly as inevitably as to whether the deceased should not be beatified immediately. This idea goes back to early church reports, in which not a Vatican congregation, but the people of God, the members of the church, spontaneously proclaimed the sanctity of a deceased person. Today’s beatification and canonization process, on the other hand, is an extremely lengthy and complicated act. If a group of people wants to campaign for the beatification of a deceased person, they must first convince the responsible local bishop of this plan. The latter can then initiate a procedure in Rome in which a possible „raising to the honor of the altars“ connected with the beatification will be examined. For this purpose, for example, all the writings of the deceased must be collected and viewed, as well as testimonies from companions, opinions from the theological spectrum and much more. In addition to the theological evaluation, there is a historical one. Curriculum vitae and historical environment, as well as the historical significance of the person concerned must be researched as precisely as possible. There is also the waiting for a possible miracle to be recognized, unless the deceased can be proven to be a martyr, a martyr.
Can’t the process of beatification, which often takes years, be shortened? At the death of John Paul II a similar attempt was made. The Polish Pope himself was a great promoter of the veneration of the saints. During his pontificate, it is said, more people were canonized than in previous centuries. It was important to John Paul to give a better face to the worldwide spread of the church in the form of its saints, so that the “young churches” in Africa or Asia also brought their own witnesses to the canon of saints. In addition, the Pope attached importance to honoring the testimonies of faith of many Christians who had lost their lives under the dictatorships of the 20th century. The history of violence of the century was for John Paul, who after all himself had lived through the Second World War and the communist dictatorship – a place of probation for the Christian faith. The numerous beatifications and canonizations given under his pontificate made this part of church history visible. In addition, numerous founders of religious orders, bishops and popes were canonized in this process. Pope John Paul II encouraged, among other things, the beatification of his predecessors Pius IX. and John XXIII. The Pope was particularly impressed by three witnesses of faith, partly because of personal encounters: the Polish nun and visionary Maria Faustyna Kowalska, Padre Pio and Mother Teresa. The beatification and canonization processes of the latter were hastened and concluded very quickly. In doing so, the pope overrode the unwritten rule that canonization should generally wait a few decades. John Paul II himself experienced a similarly quick process after his death, so that he was already canonized in 2011, six years after his death. Rome was convinced that there was such an obvious personal sanctity in some of the great figures of faith of the present day that one could dispense with waiting a few decades.
Now I certainly do not want to deny the personal holiness of the persons mentioned. However, this penchant for rapid canonization doesn’t seem well thought out to me. The usually long waiting time is not only due to the complicated, multi-stage formal process for beatification or canonization. Rather, there is also a certain, wise experience of the church in it. Quite simply, it takes a period of waiting to appreciate a person’s life’s work and importance to the Church. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the beatification process is not about smoothing a person’s way to heaven. A beatification or canonization adds nothing to the status of the person who has arrived with God. Rather, it is a matter of appreciating his or her life testimony, which has been examined and evaluated according to all human standards, so that according to our assessment standards, no other judgment is possible than that the person concerned has arrived at heavenly perfection and can be invoked as an advocate. As an example, a few believers are singled out and honored as representatives of the many “saints” – i.e. the living and deceased Christians. A distinction is made between witnesses of faith of regional importance (beatification) and of importance to the Church as a whole (canonization). Pope Benedict was, with the exception of the canonization of his predecessor, clearly more reticent than John Paul II. He introduced an important change in procedure by moving the beatifications away from Rome to the home regions of the new beatified, so that the difference between beatification and canonization became clearer. The canonizations continued to take place in Rome as a sign of the importance of the universal Church.
The crucial point is the following: In order to appreciate the importance of a person for the church in this way, it needs the evaluation by future generations. After all, the life testimony of a new blessed or saint should endure for all time. So what will posterity say about the person in a generation or two? Is his or her work of lasting importance? But above all: How will one look back on the newly canonized from a historical point of view? Nobody is just holy. Especially people in leading offices as popes, bishops or founders of religious orders will make mistakes in their administration. Faith biographies are seldom flawless. It was a certain shock that passages were found in the estate of the highly revered Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose holiness was actually beyond question, in which she confessed her deep crises of faith. In this context, I would also like to remind you of the historians‘ controversies about Pope Pius IX, Pius X or Pius XII, who were all beatified or canonized, but whose biographies were clearly inquired about when they held office. The question here was which (ecclesiastical) political sign should be set, even if one certainly did not want to doubt the personal conduct of life and the strength of faith of the popes mentioned. Now, assessments of individuals vary considerably over time. Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Aquinas or even Francis did not only have advocates in their time. On the contrary. For a long time, they were viewed very critically by church officials. In the long term, however, one can say of them that they were ahead of their time and that their work has shaped and continues to shape the church to this day. Also Pope Paul VI. When he died, he was considered a rather weak pope by both liberal and conservative forces. In 1978 there was no talk of „Santo subito“. Only Pope Francis recognized the special merits of this pope for the universal church orientation and renewal of the church in a special way and beatified him. A long historical distance is necessary in order to be able to determine the sustainability of a testimony of life.
How about Pope Benedict XVI? On the occasion of his death, appreciations were made from various quarters, which emphasized both the light and the dark side of his work. Joseph Ratzinger’s personal conduct of life and strength of faith are not called into question. This is remarkable for a personality who has been in the critical public eye for decades. However, the inquiries about Ratzinger’s role as archbishop in the course of the Munich investigation of abuse have raised the need for clarification on Ratzinger’s biographical epoch. Some church-political decisions will also continue to be questioned. Even the theological work of the late Pope, which was as extensive as it was extraordinary, still needs a period of probation for future generations. I am very confident about this.
Benedict XVI will not have moved the question of a possible beatification of his person. The goal of his life of faith was a personal encounter with God after his death. In addition, he may have always been self-critical about himself. External worship was rather uncomfortable for him. So it seems appropriate to follow tradition and wait. An early beatification is not necessary. The deceased can also now be invoked privately as an intercessor and Benedict XVI has gained already a place in the memory of the Church, as well as in the history of theology.