Jim Ring takes a look at canonisation and finds the lives of the saints less than miraculous.

THERE may soon be a New Zealand saint — so should we be excited? Canonisation is a process making testable claims and thus a legitimate field for inquiry. You may have heard that the church does exhaustive research before canonisation, with a “Devil’s advocate” to disallow extravagant assertions. A look at some examples might be instructive.

The case of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit and protégé of the founder, Ignatius Loyola, was studied by Andrew White. Xavier went to Asia about 1540 as a missionary for 12 years, first to Southern India, then China and Japan. In his letters and all contemporary stories of his life, there is no account of any miracle worked by him. Xavier himself detailed the great difficulty he had with languages.

Twenty years after Xavier’s death, Joseph Acosta, another Jesuit, wrote a biography. This discussed miracles and why the work of a modern missionary was so difficult. Acosta decided that as the early apostles were illiterate missionaries, preaching to educated people, God gave them ability to work miracles. But contemporary missionaries were literate people with illiterate audiences. God had decided that they did not need miracles.

In spite of this overwhelming evidence, later stories about Xavier told of the miracles he had performed. According to the legends, Xavier had healed the sick, cast out devils, stilled a storm, and raised the dead. In 1622 the proceedings for canonisation started, where Cardinal Monte described in detail, ten great miracles performed by Xavier.

Xavier’s own letters show the difficulty he had in communication. He coped by using interpreters, by learning a little of the language, and by signs. The papal bull of canonisation stressed that Xavier had had the gift of tongues and that he spoke to the various people with ease in their own language. The pope who signed this lying document was the one who persecuted Galileo, Urban VIII.

Surely in modern times the church is more honest? Joan of Arc is a recent case. Many think she has been a saint for centuries, but Joan is a genuine 20th century example. Her story illustrates the use of canonisation this century. In May 1430, Joan was captured by mercenaries serving John of Luxembourg. Important prisoners were valuable, and were put up for ransom. Joan was expected to attract a ransom from the Dauphin, but none was offered. The University of Paris claimed her but she was eventually transferred to the English in November 1430 on the understanding she was to be handed over to the church. The agreement was that her trial should be in Rouen, the English stronghold, not Paris.

In January 1431 the church received Joan for trial by the inquisition. There were two presiding judges: Father Peter Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, and Friar Jean Lemaitre. A hundred and twenty-three other clergy were involved as subsidiary judges, assessors, prosecutors etc. Of these only eight were of English extraction.

The English had called Joan “a witch” but in spite of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I they were not involved in these proceedings. Nor was she accused, tried, or convicted of witchcraft. The trial by a regular tribunal of the Holy Office of the Catholic Church was lawfully and canonically constituted, thus Joan was not a martyr.

On 30th May 1431 Joan was burned alive after conviction on the charges: heresy, idolatry, apostasy, relapse. The formulae of sentence by the inquisition ended, “…as a corrupt member…you should be cast from the Church, cut off from her body and abandoned to the secular power. And thus we cast you out and abandon you, praying the said power to moderate its sentence against you, and to treat you with gentleness, without destruction of your life or of any member.”

Joan was a participant and victim in a three-way civil war in France, and a two-way struggle in the papacy. To some extent she was the victim of the struggle between pope and antipope, which she did not understand. She used phrases in her letters, which suggested involvement in the cults of the antipope, all the time declaring her loyalty to the “true” pope.

By 1449 Charles VII (the ex-Dauphin) had triumphed. He had united France under one rule, the cause for which Joan had campaigned. He had made things very difficult for the papacy but both pope and antipope were dead. Charles had needed Joan out of the way, but her legend was politically valuable. He now wanted a revision of Joan’s trial and rehabilitation. Nicholas V, the new pope, wanted reconciliation with France.

Many of the witnesses at Joan’s trial were still alive and gave depositions for the inquiry. These were not statements: they were each asked 27 questions and had to reply “Thus and it was true”. All the witnesses who had been hostile to Joan now changed sides. Jean le Fevre was a judge on both occasions and each time the verdict was unanimous.

A pontifical rescript of 4th July 1456 stated: “…pronounce and decree that the said proceedings and sentences have been and are null, without validity, without effect, and abolished.” How a death sentence can be “without effect” is a mystery.

Little attention was paid to the memory of these events for most of the next centuries except in Orleans. But in the 19th century the myth of the “Saviour of France” developed at an amazing rate. This legend became the property of the right wing: Catholic, reactionary, ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic. During the Dreyfus affair a catch-cry was “Down with the Jews, up with Joan of Arc”. In recent years, the far right Front National party under Jean Le Pen has captured around 15% of the French votes. Joan of Arc is their primary political symbol and Le Pen addresses her directly in his speeches, expressing the firm belief that he will meet her in the near future and together they will “save” France.

In 1869 the bishop of Orleans asked the pope to canonise Joan. This was not well received, but by 1894 anticlericalism in France had reached such peak it alarmed Leo XIII. In response he started the process needed for beatification. Joan had been asked to perform miracles but she had just laughed. It was documented that she had not performed any but, although a beatification requires well-attested miracles, these can be performed after death.

Three French nuns claimed they had been suddenly and completely cured after praying to Joan to intercede in their favour. This was enough. However relations between the Vatican and France became more difficult. The pope recalled his nuncio in 1904 and France broke completely with the papacy in the following year. Church and state were finally separated and France became a secular state.

In 1908 Anatole France (a splendid skeptic) published his (definitive) Life of Joan of Arc. It had taken 20 years to research. This asserts that nothing supernatural occurred in her life, and that she was manipulated in a savage civil war for the purpose of fabricating a patriotic myth to support a monarchy and a unified France. The Burgundy/England group wanted her dead and forgotten; Charles VII wanted her dead and mythologised.

On 18th April 190,9 the pope declared Joan “Blessed”, ie. beatified. In the First World War, French people prayed to Joan for deliverance from the Germans. After the war Benedict XV wanted better relations with France which after all was on the winning side.

On the 16th May 1920 Joan was canonised. It was declared she had performed two more miracles. These were similar to the first three, and significantly all five were on virgins. The bulls explain why Joan was made a saint, but what they omit is of more interest than what they contain. They make no mention of Joan’s visions, nor do they mention her political or warlike actions. They do not endorse the divine mission she claimed. None of these most important issues in Joan’s life contributed to the decision.

Instead Joan was canonised because of her true Christian virtues. As a virgin she was a perfect example of true Christian womanhood.

On 20th November 1920 France renewed diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

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