Loose canonisations

The Catholic Church is turning the creation of saints into a PR exercise, says Peter Stanford

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arge Spada treasures the handkerchief which she believes Padre Pio left at her husband Joe's bedside when he appeared to him in 1975. The Italian Capuchin monk who bore the physical wounds of Christ's crucifixion on his hands, head and side had been dead for seven years at the time, but Joe Spada, like many Catholics, believed Padre Pio had God-given powers of healing. Joe was dying of cancer and his prayers to Padre Pio were miraculously answered, Marge believes, for though Joe was not cured, he died a peaceful death surrounded by an aroma of flowers which Padre Pio reputedly leaves as a sign of his presence.

Pope John Paul II has called this smell "the aroma of sanctity" and on 2 May will beatify Padre Pio in St Peter's. Marge Spada, who now heads the Padre Pio Foundation of America, will be one of the many thousands who flock to Rome to see their hero take the penultimate step on the ladder to sainthood.

The 30 years it has taken the celebrated stigmatic and healer to reach this elevated stage in the church's convoluted saint-making process represents, believe it or not, the fast-track approach. The quickest case of a canonisation so far is that of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the 19th-century "little flower" who led a blameless life in a French convent. She received Catholicism's highest posthumous honour just 28 years after her premature death, though there appears every chance that the "cause" of Mother Teresa of Calcutta may soon shatter all previous records.

In contrast to the flamboyant piety that surrounds the memory of those like Padre Pio, St Therese and Mother Teresa, the allotting of haloes in Catholicism is as bureaucratic and unspiritual a process as ordering a new pope-mobile. It is all to do with form-filling, investigations into the candidate's life and quasi-judicial hearings run by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. What pays dividends in this marathon is an infinite capacity for paperwork, more years than Methuselah and a bottomless purse.

Those who promote a cause have to pay not only their own costs but also those of the Congregation. It is rather like being asked to enclose a cheque to cover the expenses of the Downing Street Honours Unit in the same envelope as your recommendation of a local worthy for an MBE. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in the United States, for instance, estimate that they spent more than pounds 250,000 on getting their founder, Katherine Drexel, beatified in 1988. The absurdity of such huge amounts of money being spent to mark the lives of men and women who often dedicated themselves to serving the poor has not been lost on many religious orders. They are, in increasing numbers, opting out of the system, treasuring and even unofficially sanctifying the memory of their founder, but forgoing the official stamp of approval. Even if you are prepared to cough up, however, not every cause that goes forward succeeds. For beatifications and canonisations under Pope John Paul II have evolved into a primarily political act. From when control of the process of saint-making was given exclusively to the popes in 1234 - previously it was done by the cheaper, more democratic but occasionally erratic means of popular acclaim - until 1978 and the advent of the Polish pope, there had been fewer than 300 successful candidates. Yet in 1988 alone John Paul canonised 122 men and women and beatified many more. One reason for this is that the travelling shepherd who has been the first pope to exploit the potential of the jumbo jet needs to have a gift to take to his flock when he goes visiting. So one standard highlight of many of his trips has been the beatification or canonisation of a local man or woman. It shows both that the Vatican respects local traditions but that it is in control of the reins of power.

The result is that John Paul II has, in effect, created an angelic House of Lords in his own image. The figures chosen conform to a type. Most died centuries before and are generally pious, uncontroversial and apolitical. In choosing saints, John Paul has been acutely aware of their status as role models for Catholics. Hence the successful names must endorse - or certainly not contradict - his own traditionalist agenda. Favoured then have been men like Josee Maria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the conservative but highly influential organisation Opus Dei. His beatification in 1992 was condemned as a scandal by the retired head of the church in Spain and came close to bringing the whole system into disrepute.

Padre Pio's is an instructive case. In his lifetime, he was treated with a good deal of suspicion by the then liberally minded church establishment headed by Pope Paul VI. Stigmata and what the old penny catechism used to deem as "signs and wonders" did not fit in with the Church's progressive, modern worldly emphasis in the 1960s and 1970s. But what goes round comes round and now in the 1990s, in the age of John Paul II, Padre Pio represents precisely the sort of "sign of contradiction" of the secular world and its values that the current Pope admires.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, not surprisingly, rejects charges of a church-political bias to its work and points to the requirement to ascribe miracle cures to any successful candidate - one for a beatification and two for a canonisation - as proof that it is God's will that is being done. Yet there is seldom a shortage of people willing to come forward and claim to have been saved by their prayers to even the most discredited of characters. In the two years after the death of Eva Peron in 1952, the Vatican received no fewer than 40,000 letters reporting miracle cures through her intercession from beyond the grave.

The Congregation has a detailed method for checking out such claims, involving five doctors, yet it is fundamentally a lottery. At a time when the body's power to heal itself by sheer force of will continues to astonish the medical profession, and when science still remains baffled by the course and cause of many physical ailments, such professional scrutiny is at best arbitrary. It can rule out the most preposterous of claims, but how, for instance, does it evaluate, on any scientific or rational basis, Marge Spada's account of Padre Pio's appearance to her dying husband?

The Church is understandably cautious in its public approach to miracles. It is aware, as the Peniel Pentecostal Church in Brentwood last week was not, that broadcasting claims of the healing power of prayer should not be undertaken lightly. The Peniel Church had to withdraw a radio advertisement after the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that there is no rational basis for talk of miracle cures.

Contemporary Catholicism prefers to emphasise the spiritual, rather than physical healing afforded by shrines like Lourdes. Yet what continues to draw thousands to its grotto are the rows of discarded crutches hung on the walls as the concrete sign of a supernatural healing grace there. The same is true of the pilgrims who flock to Padre Pio's one-time home at San Giovanni Rotonda. John Paul II is aware of the power of talk of miracles and is anxious, judiciously, to encourage it through the beatification and canonisation process.

Yet such a strategy risks turning God into some sort of conjuring artist who has to pull the rabbit of a cure out of the hat at regular intervals if He is to continue to draw an audience. That is precisely the opposite of what religious faith is about. We are called on to believe in God without looking for tangible proof in our lifetime here on earth and in spite of the seductive logic of science and secularism.

By endorsing some claims of miracles and not others, Catholicism is trying to have its cake and eat it. It is impossible to distinguish between the sincerity of those who say they were cured by Padre Pio's intervention and those who in the 1950s claimed that Evita had come to their rescue. After you have removed the obvious frauds, you either accept all these claims or you reject them all. At the moment the church is simply cherry- picking both its saints and its miracles to suit its own temporal and earthly ends.

Peter Stanford's `The She-Pope: A Quest for the Truth Behind the Mystery of Pope Joan' is published this month by Arrow.

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