The best definition is still John Donne's in his poem, "The Canonization," Donne being after all Catholic (although a reluctant Anglican priest) plus great-great nephew of the Catholic martyr Thomas More. For Donne, a canonization is all about love, and he means a love that is passionate, sexual, and loyal:
FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love
Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve ;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king's real, or his stamp'd face
Contemplate ; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
Alas ! alas ! who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
Call us what you will, we are made such by love ;
Call her one, me another fly,
We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th' eagle and the dove.
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us ; we two being one, are it ;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love ;
And thus invoke us, "You, whom reverend love
Made one another's hermitage ;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage ;
Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes ;
So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize—
Countries, towns, courts beg from above
A pattern of your love."
This remains one of the best defenses of canonization against that devil's trident of privilege, power and politics--the mainstays of the Catholic hierarchy of bishops and pope. Donne advocated "true religion," by which he meant what you know in your heart and conscience to be right. The next-to-last verse spells out that a terrific orgasm ("We can die by it, if not live by love," the term "die" meaning what the French call "petit mort," or the really great feeling of passing out after a climax) is what "canonizes" you for love. We can take any big bang of inspired enthusiasm as part of Donne's definition of canonization.
In a way, this is an American point of view, America being a land in which the big bang of 17th century Protestant reformation galvanized the Scots and Ulster Covenanters who landed in Virginia and
Pennsylvania with Presbyterians and other non-conformists. Their ways--self-denying, hard-working, extreme in feeling, impulsive--fueled the Declaration of Independence as well as the Civil War. Along with them came the various religious revivals--the First Great Awakening, Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards discarding empty ritual in favor of deep anxiety about personal salvation--the Second Great Awakening, the Third, the Fourth (one loses track of them after a while, but they all involve an imagination for hellfire, an idea of Jesus as a personal savior, and a suspicion of any rote elements in religious ritual). The mood of these movements invariably involves inspiration and innovation over rote ritual--the ossified ritual of some Catholicisms.
One of America's greatest satirists, Tom Lehrer, makes a similar point in his rollicking attack on hypocrisy, "The Vatican Rag".
Vatican II was all about commercializing the church, selling it to more people, making it accessible, appealing, even fun.
Which is like today's one-two punch. It's a bargain. Buy one, get one free! Not just John XXIII but John Paul II as well.
Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of
Cambridge, characterizes the two wryly as "The man who took the lid off
and the man who tried to put it back on." To have a canonization you've got to have a saint (or even two) and by John Donne's standards, neither of these dudes cuts it. John XXIII Vatican-Twoed the church and whether that meant a move in the right direction or just a solid business judgement only his own conscious could reveal, so I'll take Tom Lehrer's version of events. John Paul's spin doctor, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, claims that the “purity of his thought” made it difficult for the pontiff
to accept that priests could abuse children. Please. The pure in thought don't become popes--and our text for today is George Bernard Shaw.
In his Preface to St. Joan (1924) Shaw remarked,
At best very few popes have been canonized, or could
be without letting down the standard of sanctity set by the self-elected
other result could have been reasonably expected; for it is not possible that
an official organization of the spiritual needs of millions of men and women,
mostly poor and ignorant, should compete successfully in the selection of its
principals with the direct choice of the Holy Ghost as it flashes with unerring
aim upon the individual. Nor can any College of Cardinals pray effectively that
its choice may be inspired . . . The saints and prophets, though they may be accidentally in
this or that official position or rank, are always really self-selected, like
now, thanks to Francis, saints will be equivalent to bureaucrats in the
church, wrote one of my favorite commentators on the New York Times article about the canonizations.
knew that the bureaucrats win in any business--and that true religion
is always deemed heresy by those who can't make money out of it, or who find it shocking.
Notice how the New York Times shrewdly uses the language of business to describe these "canonizations" that remain business deals, two-pronged efforts to galvanize the faithful with yet another tired serving of miracles plus some nicely-sauced saints on the side. The Times observes that John Paul "streamlined the canonization
process," and Francis "waived the requirement" for evidence of two whole
miracles. Like any good businessman, he realizes people are getting
harder to fool and some other tack had best be taken (Don Draper, please
call home). Francis is the folksy pope but he's still a businessman
canonizing other businessmen. A saint would purge the pedophiles. A
saint would let priests get married. A saint would bring in women
priests and prepare the way for a woman pope. A saint would hold gay
weddings in St. Peter's. A saint would hand out communion wafers with a
smile to divorced Catholics who want to remarry within the church. And
a saint would smile like St. Sebastian, turning every other cheek,
when the bad guys who have no imagination come after him. A saint would go the roots of the church, to the meaning of "Catholicism" as "all-embracing."
Let Oscar Wilde have the last word: "The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."