The List November 2005

The Rocky Road to Sainthood

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Saints may hold a place in heaven, but the process of attaining sainthood—beatification and then canonization—is rarely safe from controversy. Even as the speedy beatification process for Pope John Paul II is celebrated worldwide, some critics question whether the Vatican is moving too fast. Others suggest that the process has been unduly influenced by conservative religious groups eager to enshrine his policies. As the pope who made more saints than all his predecessors combined, John Paul II was acquainted with saintly controversy. Below, a sampling of religious figures and their pit stops in the purgatory of dissension.

1.Oscar Romero. The archbishop of San Salvador and a champion of human rights, Romero was murdered—reportedly by a right-wing assassin—while celebrating mass in 1980. Fearful of the political implications of putting a suspected Marxist on the path to sainthood, the Vatican delayed his beatification for a quarter century before finally beginning proceedings on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, earlier this year.

2.Emperor Charles I. The last ruler of the Austrian Empire, Charles I was supposedly the only monarch to push in earnest for a peaceful end to World War I. He also condoned the use of poison gas by his army, which killed 40,000 Italians in a single attack in 1917. Though opposition groups called him a feeble, alcoholic murderer, John Paul II beatified him, calling him a "man of peace."

3.Anne Catherine Emmerich. A German nun who died in 1824, Emmerich had visions of the Crucifixion—often interpreted as anti-Semitic—that served as an inspiration for Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. Though Emmerich's beatification stalled in 1892, when the Vatican began to doubt the authenticity of her visions, Gibson's film helped push her back into the spotlight. Despite fervent criticism from some Jewish groups, she, too, was beatified in 2004.

4.Pius IX. Venerated by Church conservatives for formulating the doctrines of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, Pio Nono was also openly anti-Semitic: he confined Roman Jews to the ghetto, stripped them of all property rights, and reportedly referred to them as "dogs." Some Church scholars believe that his beatification, in 2000, was payback against critics of one of his successors, Pius XII, whose own beatification was delayed by allegations that he had failed to condemn the Holocaust.

5.Jan Sarkander. Tarred, stretched, and executed by his Protestant captors in 1620, during the Thirty Years War, the Polish-born priest was canonized in 1995 as a martyr for his faith. Many Czech Protestants saw him differently: historically accused of encouraging an invasion by Catholic forces from Poland, Sarkander was viewed as a symbol of Catholic intolerance and totalitarianism.

6.José Maria Escriva. Founder of the ultra-conservative, ultra-secretive Opus Dei, Escriva was made a saint in 2002, in near record time—just twenty-seven years after his death. His advocates noted Escriva's temperance and work to preserve conservative Catholicism, but critics charged the Vatican with playing favorites by fast-tracking him ahead of more-liberal contenders.

7.Queen Isabella. The queen was celebrated by the Church for introducing Catholicism to Latin America through Christopher Columbus and for her efforts to keep Spain Catholic, but a bid to beatify her on the 500th anniversary of her death, last year, was passed over amid controversy regarding her role in the Spanish Inquisition.

8.Padre Pio. Mystic, healer, and all-around miracle worker, Pio was said to bear stigmata, emit "holy" floral odors, and be able to fly—such as when he swooped through the air to rescue a downed Italian pilot during World War II. Despite questions raised by two papal emissaries—and despite reported evidence that he raised money for right-wing religious groups and had sex with penitents—Pio was canonized in 2002.

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