April 24, 2014

Papal saints: Once a given, now extremely rare

On Sunday, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will become the 79th and 80th heads of the Roman Catholic Church to become saints, an event that has become a rarity in modern times.

Canonized popes in the Catholic church. How rare? Roughly 30% of all popes are saints. Starting with St. Peter, traditionally regarded as the first leader of the church after Christ’s death, 52 of the first 55 popes became saints during Catholicism’s first 500 years. In the last 1,000 years, just seven popes have been made saints, including the two being canonized on Sunday. It will be the first time in the 2,000-year history of the church that two popes will be declared saints at one time.

John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, and the hundreds of thousands packing St. Peter’s Square chanted “Santo, subito!” or “Sainthood, now!” in Italian on the day of his funeral. Pope Benedict XVI soon waived the five-year waiting period after a person’s death and officially began the canonization process for his predecessor. (John Paul himself had shortened the waiting period to five years from the traditional 50.)

Nine years later – a lightning flash in Vatican time – John Paul II will be made a saint. To put that in perspective, since 1588, when the Catholic Church created an office called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the average time between the death of an eventual saint and canonization is 181 years.

Non-papal saints outnumber canonized pontiffs, of course. Officially, the Catholic Church teaches that all people in heaven are saints, but some are officially “canonized,” or recognized as having lived lives of heroic Christian virtue and are worthy of imitation. During the church’s first 1,000 years, saints were proclaimed by popular demand. As a result, it’s impossible to quantify exactly how many saints there are, but some estimates have the number exceeding 10,000.

In 993, St. Ulrich of Augsburg was the first saint to be formally canonized, by Pope John XV. By the 12th century, the church officially centralized the process, putting the pope himself in charge of commissions that investigated and documented potential saints’ lives. And in 1243, Pope Gregory IX asserted that only a pope had the authority to declare someone a saint. A version of that canonization process is still in place.

Recent popes are known for canonizing in large numbers: John Paul II canonized 482 saintsmore than the 300 or so canonizations in the previous 600 years. And Francis’ first canonization included 813 people – the “Martyrs of Otranto” – who were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers in 1480 after refusing to convert to Islam.

Saints originally came in two varieties – martyrs and confessors of the faith. Martyrs require the posthumous performance of one miracle to be declared a saint. Before 1983, confessors required four; now they require two. (In the case of Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis waived the need for a second miracle.) A 2007 Pew Research survey found that roughly eight-in-ten Americans (79%) either completely (47%) or mostly (32%) agree that “miracles still occur today as in ancient times.” John Paul’s two miracles include a French nun’s recovery from Parkinson’s disease and a Costa Rican woman overcoming a brain aneurysm.

So why the sudden momentum for sainthood after centuries of relative quiet? Some have pointed out a recent trend among popes to set their predecessor’s cause for sainthood in motion. While not yet reaching the final step, Pius IX (d. 1878), Pius XII (d. 1958), Paul VI (d. 1978) and John Paul I (d. 1978) are all in some stage of the canonization process.

Candidates for sainthood are investigated by church authorities, who collect documents and interviews for the current pope to use in his decisions. Given the clergy abuse scandal that raged during John Paul II’s papacy, some are questioning whether the Vatican’s investigators gave the hugely popular pope a pass. After Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, we found that 70% of U.S. Catholics said addressing the clergy sexual abuse scandal should be “a top priority” for him.

Surveys we conducted in the 1980s and 1990s measured that popularity, at least among U.S. Catholics. In three different polls over the span of a decade (1987, 1990 and 1996), nine-in-ten or more U.S. Catholics said they saw John Paul II favorably (91%, 93% and 93%, respectively). By comparison, 85% said they saw Pope Francis favorably in February 2014, and 83% was the high-water mark for Pope Benedict XVI, following his visit to the United States in April 2008.

Note: This post originally misstated the year Pius IX died. His death was in 1878.  

Topics: Catholics and Catholicism, Religious Leaders

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

  2. is a Senior Writer/Editor for the Pew Research Center Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.


  1. Chris L3 years ago

    Just to be clear. None of the “popes” elected with connection to Vatican 2 are valid, they are Anti-popes, every one. Examination proves all of them to be Mason-linked and therefore excommunicated under Canon law. All Catholics should pray and hope that Our Lord restore the Church and rescue it from the army of fremasons and heretics who infiltrate even in the highest offices making the likes of the most recent, Antipope ‘Francis’ possible.

  2. Ross3 years ago

    I just am sad. This whole “saint” thing is just a joke. Can’t we just comment on the great things these men did?? Why do we have to engage in “sainthood,” which was corrupted within the first 100 years they started doing it??

  3. Jackie3 years ago

    The church admonishes the faithful to emulate saints but the fact that a young girl of 13, Maria Goretti was canonized because she died defending her “purity” from her rapist sends a medieval message to today’s women. A rape victim is guiltless, but sanctifying the sacrifice of one’s life to preserve virginity is 12th century sexism raised to the level of supreme virtue, i.e. dying to protect a husband’s future property!

    I find it ludicrous to canonize JPII at the same time as John 23rd, whose modernization of the church he succeeded in stopping and reversing as evidenced by his appointing Seattles Archbishop to rein in the Nuns on the Bus because they weren’t pushing the anti-contraception, anti-choice agenda sufficiently to satisfy the Vatican right-wingers.

    1. Jorge3 years ago

      She didn’t die to defend “her husband’s future property”, she died to defend her own virtue.

      And both Saints John Paul II and John XXIII were sons of the Church, and both defended apostolic Tradition. The Holy See wants the LCWR to become purely Catholic, instead of (in their own words) “moving beyond the Church” and even “beyond Jesus”. That reform is doctrinal, not political.

  4. Joe3 years ago

    These claimants to the Chair will become saints in the conciliar/post Vatican II Council’s new man-made religion. They will not become saints in the Catholic Church. True popes bless their predecessors and do not contradict them. John XXIII and JP2 gave new and modernized meanings to truth turning their backs on Sacred Tradition and Magisterial Teachings. Pontiffs have warned extensively against them.

  5. Leigh3 years ago

    As a Protestant, I have had an outsider’s perspective. As a child during the papacy of John XXIII, what appear to be huge advances in the RC Church due to his leadership are historical for me.

    While I wished Pope John Paul II had opened the Church to women clergy, condemned more quickly and emphatically clergy child sexual abuse and administrative failure to stop it decisively, I mostly remember hearing and reading repeatedly of his impact in resisting Soviet oppression in Poland, global travel, personal warmth, and action on behalf of the powerless–as I witnessed in Guatemala when he used his visits to reproach and prevent by his example and speech, abuse of indigenous people.

    As I understand it, saints are not considered divine, so one’s omissions can be recognized along with “heroic Christian virtue.”

  6. craig gosling3 years ago

    The despicable moral records of the early Popes were rewarded with Sainthood. Sainthood seems to hold little value as it comes so cheaply. The quality of the required miracles is abominable by any standards. And, miracles are impossible events.

  7. Bill Roach3 years ago

    Ouch, 79% of Americans believe that miracles still occur. Remember tha next time you read that we don’t put out enough scientists in proportion to our populaton.

    1. Jorge3 years ago

      Don’t confuse science education with atheism indoctrination. Science is perfectly compatible with Christianity.

  8. Leonardo Scalfi3 years ago

    The first of the popes that you mention as awaiting sanctification, is correctly Pius IX ,but he died in 1878, not 1939, and was made beate in 2000.
    The pope who died in 1939 was Pius XI.

    1. Tim Townsend3 years ago

      Thank you for catching that, Leonardo. Will correct.

  9. Pat3 years ago

    It’s unfortunate that John Paul II is considered such a rock star by some to this day. He did good things on the world scene but a great deal of damage in the church by being a dictator, besides ignoring the sexual abuse problems and allowing evil people like the founder of the Legionnaires to receive incredible power and attention . I’m surprised that the percentages of approval were so high in your surveys – you must have heard only from the far right wing. Hardly anyone I knew was happy with the way the church was being run by either JP II or Benedict.
    John XXIII certainly was a saint and did so much good in the church to update it and bring in the fresh air of the 20th century….and was a powerful force on the international scene. The the last two popes did everything they could to undo everything from Vatican II…and almost succeeded

    It’s unfortunate that JP II is even being canonized, but the right wing element in the church along with the Roman Curia has so much power that it’s not surprising. It appears that Francis found the way to speed up John XXIII’s canonization by putting the two together. I guess we could call it diplomatic or political – but those of us who welcomed Vatican II and hope that it’s wonderful philosophy and theology will again be appreciated and utilized are delighted to see John XXIII FINALLY canonized.

    1. Jorge3 years ago

      John XXIII was a son of the Church – a faithful defender of apostolic Tradition. His image as a modernist revolutionary is fabricated. Vatican II was about renewing the Church fidelity to apostolic Tradition and renewing her message in modern words. It was definitely _not_ about changing doctrine to be more compatible with Hollywood values.

  10. Fergus Misquitta3 years ago

    I am now nearing 72, and have seen what is going on in the Church today; particularly so in the Indian context. I have found/personally experienced, that one of the main concerns the laity have here in India is the greater inclination of our clergy to amass more and more personal wealth in terms of finance, and assets, for themselves and their family/relatives/connections.
    This has resulted in the common laity deeming the clergy to be thieving/devouring wolves.
    This skullduggery is most prevalent in the so-called diocesan/secular clergy, who are not bound by the vow of poverty which is the case for the clergy who are from religious orders such as Jesuits, Salesians etc.
    More and more the clergy in India are being seen as men/women who relish the base pleasures of the flesh; this is perhaps because of the celibacy tag that is attached as an essential for Catholic clergy; hence the many sexual scandals that surface from time to time; this very is not seen in the Protestant clergy who are allowed to marry.
    By shedding all the trappings of worldly wealth, such as the “Prada” shoes, fancy outfits, palatial accommodation, flashy cars etc. Pope Francis is trying very hard to preach by example. I sincerely hope and pray that he is successful. The senior clergy worldwide, as has been the practice for so many years have become so deeply entrenched in this lavish lifestyle, that they have forgotten that JESUS wore something that looked like an upturned sack; HE did not wear a big bauble in a ring which he shoved in people’s faces, expecting them to bow reverently and kiss that bauble.
    Go around the world and have a look at the manner in which these “Princes” of the Church live and conduct themselves— certainly not like shepherds—but more like wolves only intent on devouring the sheep in their care.

  11. Stephen3 years ago

    In my neighborhood, they would characterize this double canonization as being ” nickle-slick” – or put in its obvious political implications – a “balanced ticket”. John XXIII truly deserves canonization for beginning the process of bringing the Church out of the Dark Ages; John Paul slowed it down by his blind eye to the pedophiles and catering to the Church’s right wing, Benedict almost stopped it before he became pope in his behind the scenes role. The PR savvy insiders and Church conservatives knew there would be great push back within an aware body of the faithful if a not-without-blame John Paul was offered. Only Francis can put the Church back on course for its true mission. Conservatives within the Curia and clerical hierarchy are shaking their heads and shaking in their boots. #

  12. Joe3 years ago

    What a sad article. All of the attention focused on a man, JPII, not deserving of sainthood because of his inaction and unwillingness to curb the abuse of children by the Church and absolute zero mention of the man truly deserving of sainthood , John XXIII who opened up the Church to new ideas, defended Jews against the Nazis, and never would have tolerated for a moment the scandals that were rife under JPII. The Church has made the canonization process a joke by co-joining these two.