Recognizing the Rose:
Pope John Paul II and the Causes of the Saints
John Saward


In form, then, of a snow-white rose
There shone before me the saintly host
That with His blood Christ made His spouse.


Dante saw the saints in Paradise in the form of a radiant rose. While still in mortal flesh, he had the privilege of glimpsing the beauty of the heavenly Church, the glorious Bride whose members wear robes made white by the blood of the Lamb (cf Apoc 7: 14). When the Pope canonizes saints, he makes no claim to see what Dante saw. He is the supreme pastor of the earthly Church, which walks by faith not sight (cf 2 Cor 5: 7). The Bride of Christ here below does not look upon the faces of those high above who behold the face of God, but she does know the names of the greatest of them and begs them unceasingly to help her. 'In the first place', she calls upon the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, then St John the Baptist and St Joseph, the Apostles and the Martyrs, and finally all whose heroic sanctity she has affirmed by solemn decree. Even in this life, the Church can recognize a small part of the celestial rose. The Catholic Church is a pilgrim, but not a complete stranger, to the Jerusalem on high. Day by day, the King of Heaven, escorted by the angels, becomes present on her altars. In exile, as in the fatherland, there is but one Bride wedded to one Bridegroom, the incarnate Son of the Father, and He, by the working of the Holy Spirit, leads her into all the truth (cf Jn 16: 13), including the truth about the saints. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives the Church Militant a knowledge, albeit limited, of the Church Triumphant, and enables her, through the Roman Pontiff, to declare a certain soul to be reigning with Christ in glory, and to be worthy of the honour that is due to the saints. This declaration, which we call 'canonization', is a definitive and indeed infallible act. When the Church holds up one of the faithful departed for our veneration, she does not and cannot err. How monstrous it would be if she were to commend as an example of sanctity someone whose soul, unbeknown to her, was suffering eternal torment for unrepented sin! Such a monstrosity has never occurred, nor can it. Canonization is a solemn act pertaining to faith and morals, and so, in making it, the Church is preserved from error by Christ her Head. With divinely assured perception, she can recognize the rose, discern the fragrance of grace in the lives of the saints on earth and be confident about the brilliance of the glory that their souls now enjoy in Heaven.


1. The Process of Saint-Making: Recognizing the Radiance

The present Holy Father has recognized the radiance of the rose in a great number of souls. It is very likely that he has 'made' more saints than any of his predecessors: about four hundred and fifty canonizations and more than twelve hundred beatifications. The list includes some of the best loved of the holy persons of modern times, such as St Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Padre Pio. The numbers are large because the Pope has beatified whole battalions of martyrs, such as the victims of the French Revolution and Spanish Civil War, as well as eighty-five of our own countrymen who died for the true faith in penal times. Martyrs of the twentieth century are particularly prominent among the new entries in the catalogue of sainthood. 'In our own century', says the Holy Father, 'the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, unknown soldiers, as it were, of God's great cause'. The Pope is convinced that the blood of the martyrs will always be the seed of Christians, and that now, as in the past, it will bring forth the harvest of a Christendom renewed. The newly canonized and beatified include all sorts and conditions of Catholics - male and female, young and old, learned and unlettered, the virginal and the married, clerical and lay, contemplatives of the cloister and apostles of the street. Laymen and women are particularly prominent: they make up over two hundred of the beatifications and nearly two hundred and fifty of the canonizations. Perhaps the most remarkable examples of these saintly laypersons are the visionaries of Fatima, Blessed Francisco and Jacinta, the youngest children, apart from the martyrs, ever to be declared blessed by the Church. This act of John Paul II confirms the prophecy of his predecessor St Pius X when he lowered the age for First Holy Communion: 'There will be saints among the children!'


Pope John Paul wants the captivating beauty of holiness, the radiance of the rose, to shine anew upon the minds and hearts of the faithful. His goal is to encourage each of us to take up afresh the call to holiness, which, as he says, is 'rooted in Baptism': we must become what we are by the grace of our baptism. This proclamation of the Successor of St Peter echoes the exhortation of St Paul. The Apostle frequently addresses the Christians to whom he writes as 'saints', but at the same time he urges them to live saintly lives: they are holy, and yet they have to become holy (cf 1 Cor 1: 2; Eph 1: 1; 5: 3). To make sense of what the Apostle and the Pope are saying, let us remind ourselves of the effects of Holy Baptism. Consider, for example, a newly christened baby. He is, in one way, a little saint. If he were to die in infancy, he would go straight to Heaven. Christ the Saviour has washed Original Sin from his soul and imprinted His seal, His indelible character, upon him. The new little Christian is aglow with the sanctifying grace that makes him a sharer in the life of the Blessed Trinity. He is an adopted child of the Father, a member of the Son, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a partaker of the divine nature. Although he cannot yet make free acts of faith, hope, and charity, the theological virtues exist as habits in the powers of his soul. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are likewise installed, like sails in a newly fitted ship, ready and waiting to catch the wind of divine inspirations. Yes, the baptized baby is a saint - for the time being. Soon, with the dawning of reason and the awakening of concupiscence, a spiritual battle will begin. He will be exposed to the attacks of the world, the flesh, and the devil. He is holy, but he must remain holy and grow in holiness. The young Christian must exercise the virtues, theological and moral, that have been infused into his soul with baptismal grace. He must allow the Holy Spirit by His Gifts to perfect his practice of the virtues, and to bring forth those special acts of Christian virtue which the Apostle calls the 'fruits of the Spirit'. Our Lord wants to draw the baptized into ever closer friendship with Himself and the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. To that end all the other Sacraments are ordered, above all the Holy Eucharist, in which the God-Man is really present, offered, and received. The divine Bridegroom invites us to a spiritual marriage with Himself, but in order to attain that high union the soul must undergo a deep purgation, costly configuration to Christ Crucified, harrowing nights of sense and spirit. Then indeed does the Christian become what he is by his baptism. Every living thing seeks and aims at its perfection: the apple tree at its fruit, the rose at its flower. The surging movement of a thing towards a greater wholeness, towards the goods that make it better and more complete - that's life. And that, too, is the Christian life. By the grace of his baptism, the believer is alive with the supernatural life of grace, partaking of the life of the Trinity. That life must grow within him, from purgation and illumination to intimate union, to transformation in the Beloved. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it, we must, with God's help, 'hold on to and perfect in [our] lives the sanctification [we] have received from God'.


We must make a couple of distinctions. First, though the soul's mystical union with the Triune God is the summit of perfection in this world, it is only a foretaste of the final perfection of that union which we hope to enjoy hereafter. The holiness of grace is fulfilled in the holiness of glory: in the Beatific Vision, the Communion of Saints, the Resurrection of the Body, and the Life Everlasting. Secondly, while sanctifying grace makes the Christian essentially perfect, whole and holy in his being, it is charity that makes him operatively perfect, whole and holy in his action. The Pope and the Council, in agreement with all of the Church's great Doctors, teach us that the perfection of Christian life, the truly saintly life, consists chiefly in charity, in loving God above all things and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God. The saints are those who say and mean and live out the words of the act of charity: 'I love you, Jesus, my love above all things'. The holy God is the God of love, the Trinitarian God whose innermost life is an eternal communion of consubstantial persons. To be holy is to participate in the holiness of the Trinity and thus in the Trinity's life of love. 'God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him' (1 Jn 4: 16). 'Love', says St Thomas, 'has a transforming power', a transporting power; it carries us away into the heart of the beloved. So it is with the saints' love of Christ: it transports them into His Sacred Heart, where He loves the Father in the fire of the Holy Spirit. We live the life of God by love. The civilization of love is not a Utopian dream of the future; it is already a reality in the present, in the communion of the saints in charity.


The Holy Father has said many times that the call to holiness, to the perfect love of God, lies at the centre of the Council's teaching: it is 'an intrinsic and essential aspect' of its doctrine of the Church, the 'basic charge' it has bequeathed to Christ's faithful.


This charge is not a simple moral exhortation but an undeniable requirement arising from the mystery of the Church: she is the choice Vine whose branches live and grow with the same holy and life-giving energies that come from Christ; she is the Mystical Body whose members share in the same life of holiness of the Head who is Christ; she is the Beloved Bride of the Lord Jesus who delivered Himself up for her sanctification (cf. Eph 5:25ff.). The Spirit that sanctified the human nature of Jesus in Mary's virginal womb (cf. Lk 1:35) is the same Spirit that is abiding and working in the Church to communicate to her the holiness of the Son of God made man.


The argument is clear: what Christ is, the Church must also be; but what the Church is, each of her members is called to become.


2. The Purpose of Saint-Making: Reaching the Rose

The Holy Father, like his predecessors, beatifies and canonizes for four great reasons. The primary purpose is to give glory to the Holy Trinity and the sacred humanity of the Son, for it is by the Holy Trinity, through the sacred humanity of the Son, that the saints are made saintly: 'By proclaiming and venerating the holiness of her sons and daughters,' says the Pope, 'the Church [gives] supreme honour to God Himself; in the martyrs she venerate[s] Christ, who [is] at the origin of their martyrdom and of their holiness.' This truth is beautifully expressed in one of the Prefaces in the Missal: 'Thou art glorified in the assembly of the saints, and in crowning their merits, thou crownest thine own gifts'. God's supernatural gifts of sanctifying grace and charity are the prerequisite for the meriting of eternal life; the merits of the saints therefore show forth His glory. On the eve of His Passion, our Lord imparts the same teaching: 'He who abides in me, and I in Him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing … By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit' (Jn 15: 8). The fruit of sanctity manifests the glory of the Father, for without the merits of the Son sent in human nature by the Father, and without the grace of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts by the Father and the Son, we can do nothing of supernatural worth.


The second reason for canonizing the saints is to enable the faithful to venerate them and ask for their prayers. The Holy Father wants us to remember that we live and move and have our being in the great solidarity of the Mystical Body, to see the Church under the aspect of her sweetest name, the Communion of Saints. The Council of Trent, summarizing the perennial faith of the Church, teaches us that 'the saints, reigning with Christ, pray to God for [us]', and that 'it is good and useful to invoke them humbly; and to have recourse to their prayers'. Now, if we are to venerate the saints and 'invoke them humbly', we need to know who they are. The Church gives us that knowledge when she raises the servants of God to the honours of the altar.


The third purpose of canonization is to display the loveliness of the Church's holiness and thereby the reasonableness of her faith. The saints are the Church's most persuasive apologetic, and their sanctity is what the First Vatican Council calls a 'motive of credibility'. Holiness, in the Pope's words, is 'a message that convinces without the need for words'; it is 'the living reflection of the face of Christ'. Search as we may among the religions of the world, we shall find nothing to compare with the heroic virtues of the saints of the Catholic Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar argued this point very bluntly in the 1970's: 'It never occurred to Indian wisdom in all its sublimity to pick up the dying from the streets of Calcutta. That has now been done by the foolishness of Mother Teresa, who has thus enlightened all the holy gurus as to how and why Christianity is a human religion.' The little Albanian nun, by her mission of charity, proved that Christianity is a human religion, because it is the true religion revealed by God-made-man.


The Church's fourth reason for declaring someone to be a saint is to encourage all her children to take up the call to holiness, to help them reach the rose of Heaven. Knowing, as Dante did, that the rose bears petals from every time and place, and from every state of Christian life, the Pope wants to provide us with practical examples and ready helpers for the sanctification of every duty and circumstance of our earthly journey. Many of the saints have acknowledged that they themselves were led to sanctity through reading or hearing about the holy men of the past. Reading the biography of St Antony strengthened St Augustine's resolve during the final stages of his journey to the truth. His own Confessions have likewise been an instrument of conversion for countless Christian souls. When he was convalescing after the battle of Pamplona, St Ignatius of Loyola, lacking any light reading, took up the lives of the saints and began to ask himself: 'What if I should do what St Francis did, what St Dominic did?' Looking back on last year's observance of the Jubilee, the Holy Father thanked our Lord for the grace of being able to beatify and canonize so many Christians, 'and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life.' The Pope said he wanted to refute any suggestion that you can only be holy if you have 'some kind of extraordinary existence'. No, says the Holy Father, 'the ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual'. Sanctity is the 'high standard of ordinary Christian living'. It is through simple fidelity, with the help of grace, to the duties of our state of life, by humbly believing and hoping and loving Jesus in the daily round, that we shall reach the rose and shine with all the saints in glory. The road to the rose is the 'little way'. Even the Queen of All Saints followed her Son by this path, as the youngest of all the Church's Doctors teaches us in one of her poems:


The number of little ones on earth is very great.
They can raise their eyes to you without trembling.
It is the common path, O matchless Mother,
That you are pleased to tread so you can guide them to Heaven.


Here we see the great blessing of consecration to our Lady as preached by St Louis de Montfort and the Holy Father: it enables us, day by day, to draw upon our Lady's simplicity and purity for the fulfilment of our baptismal vows.


The Holy Father has been particularly keen on providing married couples with models among the saints. 'Precisely because we are convinced of the abundant fruits of holiness in the married state,' said the Pope in his encyclical for the Jubilee, 'we need to find the most appropriate means for discerning [the heroic virtues of the married] and proposing them to the whole Church as a model and encouragement for other Christian spouses.' The Pope has been true to his word. In 1994 he declared the parents of St Thérèse, Louis and Zélie Martin, to be 'venerable'. Among those he has beatified, we should mention Frédéric Ozanam, apologist of Catholic truth and apostle of Christian charity, who was both husband and father; Gianna Beretta Molla, wife, mother, and physician, who at the age of thirty-nine laid down her life for the sake of her unborn child; and Marcel Callo, hero of the Young Christian Workers and model for the engaged, who said that his sufferings in a Nazi concentration camp would purge him of faults that might later hurt the woman he intended to marry. The dying words of Blessed Gianna reveal the heart of her lay sanctity, of the sanctity of all the saints in every state of Christian life: 'Jesus, I love you, Jesus, I love you'.



No Pope has ever canonized Dante, though one Pope of the last century, Benedict XV, honoured him with an encyclical on the sixth centenary of his death. We must not make Dante the object of veneration as a saint, but we ought to admire his own example of veneration of the saints. The Divine Comedy is built upon the belief that the Head of the Mystical Body bestows His grace through the intercession of the saints, those members of His that are most closely united to Him in glory. The Inferno begins with 'three blessed ladies' - the Mother of God, St Lucy, and Beatrice - coming to the rescue of the poet who has lost his way in the dark wood of worldliness. All that he sees thereafter is intended by God to lead him back to the path of holiness. The Successor of St Peter, with his Christ-given authority, canonizes the saints with a similar purpose in mind. His burning ambition, the intention closest to his heart, is to help us to reach the celestial rose, to share the gladness and glory of the Queen of Heaven and all the angels and saints in the immediate vision of the Most Holy Trinity. The Teacher of All Christians wants his sons and daughters, as Dante did, to fear Hell, to be ready for Purgatory, and to walk humbly, on the path of faith, hope, and charity, towards Paradise, the snow-white rose, the shining city of the saints, whose only lamp is the glorified Lamb.