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How to choose your heroes  

05 November 2021

Catherine Pepinster considers the Church’s recognition of sanctity


Tsar Nicholas II and his family in a detail of an icon of modern saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, dating from 2005

Tsar Nicholas II and his family in a detail of an icon of modern saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, dating from 2005

WHEN the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition of the jewellery of Carl Fabergé opens later this month, visitors will be able to see some of the most spectacular items ever made from gold and precious jewels — including Easter eggs presented by the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, to his wife, Alexandra. Alexandra, who joined the Russian Orthodox Chuch on her marriage, was a deeply devout woman, and Easter was a significant feast for her.

Today, the scale of the luxury that the Russian royal family enjoyed –— including those bejewelled Easter eggs — seems extreme, tasteless even, in contast with the poverty of the Russian masses, whose uprising led to the downfall of the Romanovs. Such riches are not what we in the West connect with saints, whom we tend to think of as more ascetic characters, with their eyes on heaven rather than the pleasures of this world. Yet Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children, who were all executed in a basement in Yekaterinberg in July 1918, are now revered as saints in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The canonisations were not without controversy. In 1981, they were recognised as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, even though some members argued that Nicholas was too weak a ruler to be considered, while others said that the nature of his death was the reason for canonisation. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonised the family, not as martyrs, but as Passion-bearers, who lived out the gospel in their lives, including the period of incarceration before their death.


SINCE the re-emergence of the Russian Orthodox Church after glasnost, a considerable number of martyrs have been raised to its altars. In 2011, its Bishops’ Council published a document on the new saints of the Soviet era, urging that the faithful honour them, churches be dedicated to them, and their feast days be celebrated. But, apart from the Romanovs, they have not become popular. Rather, saints noted for their intercession for people’s problems — whether ill-health, alcoholism, or infertility — retain the affections of believers.

This is not particularly surprising: in the West, St Anthony of Padua (patron saint of lost items), St Jude (lost causes), and St Peregrine (cancer treatment) are among people’s favourites as intercessors. But, however popular these patrons are, Churches do not focus on recognising those who provide quick fixes for problems in the material world, but, rather, on honouring those who have shown holiness and closeness to God in their lives, so that they can be exemplars for the faithful.

Who is recognised as a saint tells you much about a Church: just as Russian Orthodoxy has recently focused on Soviet-era martyrs, so Roman Catholic bishops in England in the 19th and 20th centuries pushed Rome to honour the Catholic martyrs of the Reformation: a mass canonisation of 40 men and women that many thought might damage ecumenism.

While Pope John Paul II, a fervent Polish patriot, honoured his fellow Pole Maximilian Kolbe — who volunteered to die at Auschwitz in place of a married man and father — and stood up to a terrible dictatorship, he failed to give recognition to Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop gunned down while he celebrated mass, who was outspoken in his criticism of another brutal regime.


BUT John Paul was not slow in recognising others: he was the “saint-maker pope”, canonising 483 people and beatifying 1340 others. It was a tally greater than the combined total of his predecessors of five centuries. Why did he do it? According to his biographer, George Weigel, John Paul believed that canonisations reminded the faithful of the universal call to holiness.

He was also keen to reflect the Second Vatican Council’s vision that there was a plurality of forms of sanctity — and one way of doing that was to change how saints are made. Out went the old way of saint-making, which was akin to a posthumous religious trial, starring the Devil’s Advocate, who did everything in his power to question the holiness of the candidate, and in came a more historical-academic procedure, which involves studying huge numbers of documents about the candidate’s life, and his or her writings and other evidence.

The are milestones in the process: being declared a Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed (beatification), and then Saint (canonisation). The final stages require evidence of miraculous cures after the prayers of the individual have been invoked.


THESE complicated Vatican procedures are not replicated in Anglicanism, but its calendar of also very full.

Since the resolutions of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, Anglicanism has honoured saints from scripture and others canonised before the Reformation, but also has begun to commemorate an ecumenical list including more recent figures ranging from William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, to Óscar Romero — a move that many advocates of Romero’s cause believe encouraged Rome to canonise him.

Controversial names, the Conference said, were not be inserted in the calendar until they could be seen in the perspective of history — a wise edict, given the embarrassment that moving too quickly can bring. John Paul II, for example, was fast-tracked, and canonised in 2014 just nine years after his death; but concerns have since emerged that he was negligent in failing to act against Marcial Maciel, the sex-abusing founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

So keen were John Paul’s admirers to have him canonised that his cause opened just one month after his death. Banners were on display at his funeral, proclaiming Santo subito! (“Make him a saint now!”).


THAT was a throwback to medieval saint-making, when people considered holy were made saints by popular acclamation. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was another recent saint whose canonisation came just 19 years after her death, but she had long been considered one during her lifetime. The speed with which she and John Paul were raised to the altars is in marked contrast to the time taken over Joan of Arc (489 years after her death) and Thomas More (400 years after his).

Some candidates are championed, others’ causes flounder, and some, to adapt George Eliot, lived a hidden, faithful life, and rest in unvisited tombs. Who really knows how many in the halls of Sion are counted as God’s elect? We surely hope that it is a multitude.


Catherine Pepinster is a writer, broadcaster, and former editor of The Tablet. Her book Martyrdom: Why martyrs still matter is published by SPCK.

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