Opinion

The Great Debate

The uncanonized saints

The Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, nearing the end of a long restoration, has a new mural over its main doors. Surrounding the Holy Spirit, in the form of an incandescent dove, is a gathering of women and men flanked by angels. Most have soft yellow halos, but three figures, including the pair closest to the dove, do not.

The three are local icons. Activist and writer Dorothy Day wears a hat with the inscription “NO WAR” and holds a stack of Catholic Worker newspapers, the publication she founded. Beside her is Bernard Quinn, a priest who served Brooklyn’s African American community at a church just blocks away, and whose Long Island orphanage was twice burned down by racists. Pierre Toussaint, who looks intently toward the dove, was a slave-turned-philanthropist who, on gaining his freedom in 1807, adopted his surname from the leader of the Haitian revolution.

Sunday, as Popes John XXIII and John Paul II receive their halos through the Vatican’s canonization process, it may be especially hard to remember that not all saints have official halos. Nor does one have to be a world-famous pope to be a saint.

This double nod to the papacy honors two men who made a point of pushing the Catholic Church to be more universal — more at home in the world outside the Vatican gates. Both John XXII and John Paul II envisioned a church in which holiness lies not just in its hierarchy but in all of God’s people, Catholic and otherwise.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII propelled the church hierarchy into the Second Vatican Council, which challenged its members to reconsider some of their rusty habits in light of the core of their faith. When the dust settled, the Mass was no longer in Latin, and the church was able to take a more conciliatory tone toward other religions. His encyclical Pacem in terris made a hopeful call for peace at the height of the Cold War.

Pope Francis: Beyond the compelling gestures

The most talked about person in the world — no surprise there! — is Pope Francis. Polls and Internet traffic confirm: No celebrity even comes close to him in fame or favor.

When it comes to “followers,” the pope does have an enormous head start, as leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church. He also inspires unmatched curiosity and attention globally among many millions from other faiths and no faiths.

Francis comments most effectively through compelling gestures. The public sees him kissing the bare foot of an imprisoned Muslim woman, or the illness-ravaged face of a man he is blessing. When a child jumps to his side or grabs his papal skull cap, the pope is attentive, undistracted. Less instantaneous, but still revealing, gestures find him riding public buses, driving his own old car, living in humble quarters or sneaking off in the night to minister to the homeless.

  •