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On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize Pope Paul VI as the 82nd saint among the 266 popes. Paul VI will become only the eighth papal saint since 1000 AD, but the fourth of the twentieth century, joining Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul II. What are we to make of this fact?
For the Church’s first five hundred years, popes were routinely acclaimed as saints. Christians regarded their late popes as saintly and created individual cults. Of the fifty-four popes from St. Peter to St. Felix IV (d. 530), only two were not canonized. After Felix IV, such popular devotions became more selective, but through the eighth century the process remained the same. This was the “popular model” for canonizing popes, whereby the faithful selected popes for veneration. It was the norm, not the exception, for a pope to become a saint; only the controversial and the morally or doctrinally suspect were denied sainthood.
Pope - St - Nicholas - Saints - Reasons
After Pope St. Nicholas I died in 867, papal saints became highly unusual, for two reasons. First, all the popes during the period 900-1050 were either obscure or simply bad people. Second, during subsequent ecclesial reforms in the eleventh century, the popes centralized and formalized canonization decisions throughout Christendom. In 1200, Innocent III confirmed the exclusive right of the papacy to name saints. Such papal control complicated the decision to canonize a pope. The canonization of any saint—but especially a papal saint—conferred the current pope’s imprimatur on that saint’s life, beliefs, and political or religious agendas.
As a result, papal saints became rare, and the few papal canonizations between 900 and 1957 all reflected contemporary papal policies. Pope St. Leo IX, one of the eleventh-century reformers, was canonized by Pope St. Gregory VII, himself a great reformer and centralizing pope. Gregory’s own canonization in 1728 accords...
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