The Council of Trent played a significant role in purifying the Church and the papacy, but it is in the 20th century that a series of outstanding popes were elected, but still men with their own flaws. You may have noticed that in recent decades being a pope puts you on the canonization track.
There were cries of “santo subito” (“canonize him on the spot”) at the funerals of John XXIII and John Paul II, and they are now both canonized.
Others are in the process. In a characteristic tongue-in-cheek moment, Pope Francis recently suggested that Benedict XVI and he are both on that track. But it is clear that for Francis – and for Benedict, who would use non-Jesuit terms – sainthood does not consist in achieving canonization, but it is in being a forgiven sinner who constantly struggles to allow God’s love and compassion to transform him.
As a youngster I believed that canonization meant that saints were so perfect that they went straight to heaven, bypassing purgatory. This was going too far.
Canonization means two things: a declaration by the Church that the new saint, after any requisite purification, is in heaven, and that he/she was gifted with virtues which serve as an example, an encouragement, and a model for imitation.
A person may be deeply loving and ready to be welcomed by Jesus in the life beyond, yet have flaws of character which he/she has not been able to eradicate, in spite of constant struggles. This generates humility, and humility is the seedbed of sanctity.
Many commentators and ecclesiastics, stung by the pronouncements of Francis – at times resembling those of Jesus when dealing with the religious authorities of his time – are very good at highlighting flaws in his character, but flaws he already knows and acknowledges.
If we delve into the lives of our 20th century popes, we see good and attractive human beings and not plaster saints. Commentators and historians have noted in these popes, to give a few examples, irascibility, sensitivity about their own prerogatives; hesitation, anxiety in making decisions; stubbornness, difficulty in hearing out unwelcome voices; impulsiveness and improvisation.
But the Church is human; we are human; and God provides us with human leaders. The men we have been talking about are not demi-gods or angels: they are permeated by God’s love and forgiveness, striving to give their all in fulfillment of the mission which was thrust upon them, constantly contending with their own limitations, bearers of gifts of the Spirit which surpass their natural powers.
Ours is a difficult time, but God has marvellously provided for His Church. He has not only given His church worthy leaders, but he has tested them as he once tested his Son and they have come through the great tribulation.
Let us pray that Francis will come through his time of trial and prove to be in every way an instrument of His purposes and an example for all of us.