Pope John Paul II has always had a reputation for being the pope who canonized people most liberally: reducing the number of miracles required for beatification and sainthood, abbreviating the wait time after a candidate's death, and naming more saints than all his predecessors combined.
I am beginning to wonder, however, whether Pope Francis is going to outdo him in saint-making bravado, if not in numbers.
Take a look at a list of the saints Francis has canonized since the beginning of his pontificate. As of this printing, there are 10. What is striking is that six of them -- more than half -- were canonized without the two requisite miracles.
Moreover, the Vatican has just announced that another saint, Giuseppe Vaz of Sri Lanka, will also have his second miracle waived.
The pope is using an 18th-century process known as "equivalent canonization." It allows people to become saints not on the basis of miracles, but because of a long-standing cult, of the "constant and common attestation" of a virtuous life, and of an "uninterrupted reputation for wonders."
According to Cardinal Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the process, "though not frequent, is not rare." It had been used most recently by Pope Benedict XVI in the case of Hildegard of Bingen, whom he also made a doctor of the church. Yet it is increasingly in vogue under Pope Francis, who may soon hold the honor of making more saints by equivalent canonization than all of his predecessors combined.
This is fitting for a pope who has insisted that the church be of the poor. The saint-making process -- with its drawn-out inquiries and trials -- is notoriously expensive, and usually only dioceses and religious orders with some financial means are capable of launching these protracted canonization campaigns. This has resulted in an underrepresentation of saints among the laity and in some less traditionally Catholic countries around the world.
This discrepancy has caught the pope's attention. Meeting a Cambodian woman in South Korea, for instance, he reportedly promised to speak to "my friend Angelo" about the dearth of native Cambodian saints.
Acting on executive order like this could help to democratize the process for smaller churches eager to see their local blesseds recognized. Along these lines, it is worth noting that the soon-to-be-canonized Vaz will be Sri Lanka's first native-born saint.
Naturally, diminishing the role of the saint-making bureaucracy gives greater consequence to the subjective feelings of the pope. There have been rumblings that Francis' choice of saints (Peter Faber, José de Anchieta) has shown favoritism toward the Jesuits. Likewise, much ink has been spilled over the theological significance of the canonization of John XXIII, just as more will be spilled if Francis canonizes Archbishop Oscar Romero.
But saint-making is just one way among many that a pope can set the church's tone. Perhaps the greater stakes here involve traditional pieties concerning the supernatural.
Whatever the pope's personal theological opinion of miracles, equivalent canonization could be seen as more befitting 21st-century ideas about science.
The church's centuries-old insistence on ascertainable miracles was actually an attempt to apply greater rigor to a tradition rooted in the spontaneous acclamations of local cults. Yet many today will wonder whether popular veneration, if seemingly more subjective, isn't ultimately a more sober criterion of people's holiness than miracles are.