The Vatican Loves a Good Saint Story

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It's been an unpleasant year for Pope Benedict XVI, so much so, one feels moved to ask: Are there any papal practices he takes refuge in that are more fun than, say, celibacy? We know of at least one: saint-making. In his going-on-five-year-old reign, the pontiff has canonized at least 29 souls, according to the Holy See's Web site—10 in 2009 alone. The newly sainted didn't include Mother Teresa, everyone's top seed, but they did include one friar, Bernardo Tolomei, born in the 13th century, whose crowning achievement, according to the Vatican biography, was to leave his fellow "monks an example of a holy life, the practice of the virtues to a heroic level, an existence dedicated to the service of others, and to contemplation."

Today, the Vatican is busier than ever minting new saints. John Paul II canonized more than all the popes of the five centuries before him combined—over 130 in his 25 years, says the Vatican site—and his successor, Benedict, is now besting his per annum rate. Shrewd in the calculus of worship, John Paul recognized that the canon could be a boon to the perpetuation of Catholicism in an era of increasing secularism, just as martyrs' cults had been to its early spread among polytheists and Jews. The former playwright's dramaturgical instincts told him people just like saints. They may not like their priests and bishops, nor indeed the pope, and they may not care to read Deuteronomy. But they enjoy their saints, even when they know—maybe because they know—that not all saints deserve to be saints.

Unlike, say, Jesus, saints offer relatable examples of righteousness. They're often awkward, vain, dissolute, paranoid, self-loathing, lazy, annoying, racked with doubt. (No surprise, then, that their life stories, or vitae, were often the pre-Gutenberg equivalent of best-sellers.) Saints also offer a local connection to the heavens: Six continents will be represented in the canon when, this fall, Australia gets its first saint, Mary MacKillop, a nun with a posthumous blog and a travel agency devoted to her cause....

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