Saints and Memory

I have a new piece on CNN today about the upcoming canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. When CNN asked me if I had anything to write about it, the core question to me was – why should non-Catholics, especially secular people, care. I’m lucky in having very smart people around me – virtually and on campus – to help me think through that question. I’m also lucky in the power of the press to get interesting people on the phone (Robert Ellsberg in this case).

I wrote:

So what might non-Catholics take away from this?
First, both saints offer a
model of risk-taking based on a strong sense of moral purpose. Second,
one could learn a lot about what’s going on with the billion or so
Catholics in the world today.
The dual canonizations,
it turns out, symbolize an attempt to turn the church away from decades
of infighting and turf wars and toward a mission for the common good.

I’d like to know what you think.

What really makes me happy, though, are these paragraphs:

According to Catholic belief, popes do not make people into saints; God does. Canonization, an all-too human practice, is the process of recognizing divinely given sanctity. As John Allen Jr. has written, ideally this is a deeply democratic process, with devotion to a holy person flowing upward from the laity to the hierarchy.

Canonization provides an opportunity to shape memory.

People become recognized as saints, in part, through storytelling, a topic I study as an historian of the Middle Ages. When we choose what stories to tell about a person, we reveal a lot about ourselves, our hopes and fears, the ways in which we might try to do better personally, and the kinds of changes we’d like to see in the world.

That’s been true since the early centuries of Christianity, a period in which sainthood was generally bestowed by local and regional communities without any broader oversight from church authorities. If a group of people believed that someone was a saint, and they set up shrines, venerated relics, developed rituals and told stories about miracles — then that person was a saint. During the Middle Ages, the papacy asserted ever-increasing control over the process of who got to tell the stories of saints. While the vox populi still matters, next Sunday is Pope Francis’ show.

That stuff about storytelling, memory, medieval history – the that the way we shape stories matters as much as the actual lived experiences of the saints? That’s my day job. I’ve written a book about hagiography (writing about saints) and memory in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (1204). In general, I am an historian because I’m interested in the way that people shaped memory, rather than trying to tease out “what really happened” in any given case – though I like to know that too.

So sneaking that into CNN pleases me. Hopefully, when my book comes out in February next year, I’ll be able to sneak some more.

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