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As a non-Roman Catholic, I should probably tread lightly on practices and a history that I know at best second hand. So if in what I go on to write here I make some errors or overstatements, I will beg forgiveness and hope I don’t miss the boat too much.
But the elevation to sainthood of Pope John Paul II this past weekend got me to thinking. As I understand it, for centuries now the road to sainthood was a slow and unhurried one. According to a Roman Catholic website I visited this week, in history the process (and it is a multi-step and careful process) of someone’s becoming a saint typically was not even begun until a very long time after the person’s death so as to provide “perspective” and a greater clarity on the life and work of the would-be saint in question. Even today the rule is that someone cannot even begin to be considered until at least 5 years after the person’s death. All things being equal, then, John Paul II should not have entered even the earliest stage toward sainthood until sometime in 2010.
So how is it that he is a full saint already in 2014? Well, Pope Benedict XVI waived the 5-year rule to fast track his predecessor and ever since, all the other stages (as I understand it there are three classifications that lead up to the final designation of “saint”) were likewise moved right along. Today, it seems, people want their heroes declared saints as fast as possible so they can still have living memories of the person who becomes an official saint. What good would it have done devotees of John Paul II had the process not begun until 2030 or something? What if John Paul II had to wait as long as the other pope elevated to sainthood last weekend, John XXIII? Had John Paul II waited that long, his sainthood would have come in 2056. But that would be, like, forever. Nevermind that long and prudent wait periods of discernment used to be de rigeur, a fast-food culture of the moment demands swifter action (even if it means cutting back on cautious discernment and holy patience).
OK, maybe I am being a little hard on some of my Catholic sisters and brothers. So I will re-locate what I see as the same stripe of the tyranny-of-the-present impatience closer to my own tradition. As many people have noted, if you attend any number of evangelical churches these days, the impression could be left that the entirety of the Christian tradition was invented sometime in the last 5-10 years. Most of us have heard of the megachurch that some while back made it a quasi rule that they would sing no song that was older than 10 years.
There is a similar lack of patience when it comes to learning nuanced doctrines or wrestling with Bible passages that require a cautious and rigorous hermeneutic to understand them. And when issues arise in the church, people want them solved. Now! How inconceivable it is to the modern church to ponder the centuries’ worth of time it took to puzzle out doctrines like the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. Today if a denomination or other church body argues over a certain issue for a year or two, people throw up their hands because it is taking, like, forever for the church to get its act together on issues of lifestyle, sexuality, and the like. (And churches that take their time in deliberating and praying and studying discover soon enough that people who are impatient with the pace of change vote with their feet and move on to other pastures, to places where the church moves with a speed more appropriate to our digital age that downloads thousands of bytes per second.) Of course it does not boil down to just this but sometimes I think that at least part of some people’s unwillingness to embrace the kind of long cosmic history suggested by modern science is because they just cannot figure out why in the whole wide universe God would have taken so long to create things. Why would God ever take his time?
I am not sure what it all means, and I don’t mean to short-circuit the Holy Spirit’s ability to work effectively in every age and in the midst of lots of varying church dynamics. No doubt even back when all things ecclesiastical moved at a more stately pace, the churches then had significant problems that maybe churches today don’t have any longer. There are no golden ages of church history.
Still, I worry about what we lose by cutting ourselves off from history, from deliberation, from caution and prudence and a willingness to embrace questions and concerns that cannot be resolved in nano-seconds. Sometimes it seems like had it been up to us contemporary folks, the Son of God would have been incarnated already when Cain and Abel were toddlers. Yet Scripture reveals that God waited for eons before bringing his only Son and he’s been waiting two millennia since then before sending him back in triumph.
Maybe there is something to learn from the patience of God, even if it takes us a good long while to figure out what that “something” may be.
Meanwhile it took the RCC 833 years to declare Hildegard von Bingen a saint. Although, to be fair, they did somewhat make up for lost time by also declaring her a Doctor of the Church.
Ironically, one of the chief lessons I learned while doing post-graduate work at a Roman Catholic University (St. Michael's, Toronto) was that we Protestants lacked a proper Christian time-frame for measuring things. As Protestants we think, so my Roman Catholic friends told me, in terms of five years or maybe even 10, while they think in terms of millennia—think of John Paul II's encyclical "Evangelization in the Third Millennium." Now, apparently, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are starting to RUSH as well.
Thanks for this, Scott. This makes sense to me.
See you in a few days in the good ol' Canadian Maritimes!