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What Are We to Make of the “Beatification” of Pope John Paul II?

April 30th, 2011
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You may have noticed numerous news reports about the beatification of Pope John Paul II. What are we Lutherans to make of this? The short answer is simply: we do not recognize, nor can we accept, any of the theology or practice surrounding the Roman Catholic Church’s “cult of the saints” as it is known in our Lutheran Confessions.

Here is what the Augsburg Confession, Art. 21 has to say about the Roman system of saints:

The memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling, as the Emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. 2] For both are kings. But the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor. 3] He is to be prayed to, and has promised that He will hear our prayer; and this worship He approves above all, to wit, that in all afflictions He be called upon, 1 John 2:1: 4] If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, etc.

If you would like to read what we Lutherans believe, teach and confess about this issue, please read the following articles from the Book of Concord: The Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession, Article 21; and The Smalcald Articles, Invocation of the Saints.

The practice of beatification is premised on the fact that we can never know, for a certainty, in this life whether or not a person was ever actually saved by God’s grace. This “monster of uncertainty” plagues both the Roman communion and, ironically, is the basis for many of the “decisions for Christ” that we witness among Evangelicals, who lack the concrete assurance of God’s grace, because they simply do not trust and believe that the objective promises of the Gospel are actually given, conferred, bestowed [use whatever word you want] on the individual Christian. We know that God does this through His Holy Word and Sacraments.

It is good for us to understand what “beatification” means in the Roman communion. Here is how the Vatican explains it, on their web site:

Throughout her history, the Church has always celebrated holiness as an expression of the “wonderful things” the Lord works in the life of his People. In response to sensibilities and historical contexts, the Church has paid special attention to the liturgical forms and procedures in which praise to the Most High is expressed and new life given to the faith and piety of the faithful.

These procedures and the significant wealth of such rites have also been carefully studied by the Church in light of the most recent ecclesial knowledge for a more incisive understanding and a more cogent effect of the very nature of holiness, which the Church celebrates with the rites of Beatification and Canonization.

To this end, the Holy Father Benedict XVI has introduced important new procedures for Beatifications.

I. Historical-juridical premise

1. In the first millennium of the Church’s existence, the cult of Martyrs and later of Confessors of the Faith was regulated by the various particular Churches. On the occasion of a Synod, the Bishops, individually or collegially, would authorize new particular cults that began with the elevatio or translatio corporis [the body was exhumed and transferred]. These acts subsequently became known as “episcopal canonizations” or “particular canonizations” because they involved directly only the local Church (Benedict XIV, “Magister” of the Causes of Saints, will make episcopal canonization equivalent to beatification, which consists in the concession [permissio] of a cult “pro aliquibus determinatis locis” [De Servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione, Prato, 1839, L.I, ch. 31, 4, p. 196]).

In the 11th century, the principle that as universal Pastor of the Church the Roman Pontiff alone has the authority to prescribe a public devotion began to gain ground, both in the particular Churches and the universal Church. With a Letter to the King and Bishops of Sweden, Alexander III asserted the Pope’s authority to confer the title of Saint and the relevant public cult. This norm became a universal law with Gregory IX in 1234.

In the 14th century, the Holy See began to authorize cults limited to specific places and to certain Servants of God whose canonization cause had not yet been initiated or had not yet reached its conclusion. This concession, with a view to future Canonization, is at the origin of Beatification.

After Sixtus IV (1483), Servants of God to whom a limited cult was granted were known as Blesseds. A definitive juridical distinction was thereby made between the titles of Saint and Blessed, which in the Middle Ages had been used loosely.

The concession of a local devotion was rendered official and communicated to those concerned in an Apostolic Letter in the form of a Brief, which the local Bishop implemented auctoritate apostolica.

After the establishment of the Congregation for Rites (1588) by Sixtus V, the Pope continued to permit limited cults (Missa et Officium) to culminate in Canonization. Procedures were gradually clarified and refined until they developed into the norms in force today, which were promulgated in 1983.

2. The teaching on the institution of Beatification (“Doctores… tradunt Beatificationem esse actum, quo Summus Romanus Pontifex indulgendo permittit aliquem Dei Servum coli posse in aliqua Provincia, Dioecesi Civitate, aut Religiosa Familia Cultu quodam determinato, ac Beatorum proprio, usquequo ad solemnem eius Canonizationem deveniatur” [Benedictus XIV, L.I, ch. 39, 5, p. 262]), and Canonization (ibid., p. 263) has remained substantially unchanged down the centuries. The distinction between them (I. Noval, Commentarium Codicis Juris Canonici, Lib. IV De Processibus, pars II, Augustae Taurinorum-Romae, 1932, p. 7), which is adequately expressed in the respective proclamatory or constitutive formulas, is clear and essential.

Canonization is the supreme glorification by the Church of a Servant of God raised to the honours of the altar with a decree declared definitive and preceptive for the whole Church, involving the solemn Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.

This is expressed unequivocally in the formula: “Ad honorem Sanctae et Individuae Trnitatis… auctoritate Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli ac Nostra… Beatum N. N. Sanctum esse decernimus ac definimus, ac Sanctorum Catalogo adscribimus, statuentes eum in universa Ecclesia inter Sanctos pia devotione recoli debere”.

Beatification, on the other hand, consists in the concession of a public cult in the form of an indult and limited to a Servant of God whose virtues to a heroic degree, or Martyrdom, have been duly recognized, as is pointed out by the respective formula:  “…facultatem facimus ut Venerabilis Servus Dei N. N. Beati nomine in posterum appelletur, eiusque festum… in locis ac modis iure statutis quotannis celebrari possit”.

II. The rites of Beatification down the centuries

The rites and ceremonies for Beatification and Canonization, as well as the formulas to be pronounced and other minor details, have been expressed in different ways, although they have essentially remained in doctrinal continuity. Here we point out four stages that solely concern the institution of Beatification:

a) Before 1662: The Pope, conceding a local cult (beatification), normally left to those concerned (Promoters of the Cause, the Local Ordinary) the possibility of choosing the day, venue and form in which to solemnize the event of the Beatification that had occurred and to inaugurate the new cult (Missa et Officium).

It could also happen in certain monasteries that no external solemnity was celebrated on the occasion of the Beatification, but the feast of the new Blessed was commemorated on the day of the year established by the liturgical calendar.

b) From 1662 to 1968: The first Beatification in solemn form was that of St Francis de Sales, desired by Alexander VII. The rite took place in St Peter’s Basilica in two separate phases.

The first was in the morning of 8 January 1662 when the actual rite of Beatification was celebrated. The Apostolic Brief, dated 28 December 1661, was read out, with which the Pope conferred upon him the title of Blessed and the relative liturgical honours; the celebration of solemn Mass followed, at which the Bishop of Soissons presided. It was subsequently usual for a Canonical Bishop of the Vatican Chapter to preside at the Eucharistic celebration.

The main role in this morning rite was played by the Sacred Congregation for Rites and the Vatican Chapter; the second phase took place in the afternoon of the same day when the Pope entered the Basilica to venerate the new Blessed and to receive the plenary indulgence which he himself had bestowed upon the faithful who visited the Basilica that day.

The practice begun by Alexander VII remained virtually unchanged until 1968, when the last Beatification in accordance with that rite was celebrated (cf. F. Veraja, La Beatificazione. Storia, problemi, prospettive, Rome, ed. Congregation for the Causes of Saints, 1983, pp. 7-111).

c) From 1971 to 2004: With the Beatification of St Maximilian Kolbe (d. 1941), celebrated on the morning of 17 October 1971, Paul VI introduced the important innovation of presiding personally at the rite of Beatification. Thus, the afternoon ceremony, during which the Holy Father visited the Basilica to venerate the new Blessed and receive the plenary indulgence, was abolished.

For the first time, a “beatification formula” was drafted that was read by the Pope himself. Until then, the Congregation for Rites had been of the opinion that “even if the Pope intervened, there must be a clear distinction in solemnity between canonization and beatification” (wrote Bishop Antonelli, Secretary of the Dicastery:  Archives of the Congregation, V AR 107/966 in G. Stano, Il rito della Beatificazione da Alessandro VII ai nostri giorni, in Miscellanea per il quarto Centenario della Congregazione della Cause dei Santi [1588-1988], Vatican City, 1988, p. 401).

In successive Beatifications (1972, 1974, 1975), the Pope, present at the celebration, received the peroratio and spoke the formula of beatification but did not celebrate Mass. At most, it was the Bishop of the new Blessed’s Diocese who presided at the Eucharistic celebration. The peroratio was drafted by the Prefect of the Secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints or also by the diocesan Bishop who presided at the Eucharistic celebration.

With the Beatification on 19 October 1975, the Pope resumed the practice of presiding at the Mass and continued to do so until 2004.

d) As from 2005: Pope Benedict XVI has established that Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, should preside at the rites of Beatification on 14 May 2005. “De mandato Summi Pontificis”, the Cardinal read the Apostolic Letter with which the Pope conceded the title of Blessed to two Venerable Servants of God. Prior to this, the Bishops of the new Blesseds’ Dioceses briefly summed up their lives. Cardinal Józef Glemp, diocesan Archbishop, Primate of Poland, presided at the Beatification rites in Warsaw, Poland, on 19 June 2005

III. Criteria for the rite of future Beatifications

The Holy Father Benedict XVI’s recent decision not to preside personally at Beatification rites is a response to the widely felt need to:

i) give greater emphasis in the celebration to the substantial difference between Beatification and Canonization; and

ii) to involve the particular Churches more visibly in the Beatification rites of their respective Servants of God.

It became clear in the many Beatifications celebrated by John Paul lI in every part of the world that it is more pastorally suitable that Beatifications take place preferably in the particular Churches, while allowing for the possible choice of Rome for special reasons to be assessed, case by case, by the Secretariat of State.

Wherever Beatifications take place, in Rome or elsewhere, it is necessary to show clearly that every Beatification is an act of the Roman Pontiff, who thus permits (“facultatem facimus” in the current beatification formula) the local cult of a Servant of God, making his decision public in an Apostolic Letter.

Rites of Beatification and Canonization are already in themselves quite different; nonetheless, the fact that from 1971 onwards the Holy Father generally presided at them has almost blinded people to the substantial difference between the two institutions.

IV. Practical guidelines for the rite of Beatification

The directives that follow, therefore, concern rites of Beatification celebrated either in Rome or outside it, at which the Holy Father does not normally preside but at which he can always choose to preside in the circumstances and ways he may deem appropriate.

a) Rites of Beatification in particular Churches:

It is opportune from now on that rites of Beatification should take place in the Diocese that has promoted the new Blessed’s cause, or in any other more suitable place in the same Ecclesiastical Province or Region.

The date and time of the Beatification as well as the possible grouping together of Servants of God from different Dioceses will be decided by the diocesan Bishop (or diocesan Bishops) and the Promoters of the Cause (or Causes) with the Secretariat of State, as has been done until now.

The Beatification rite that will take place during a liturgical celebration will begin with the presentation to the Assembly of the essential biographical traits of the future Blessed. This presentation will normally be made by the diocesan Bishop, or should there be several Servants of God, by the respective diocesan Bishops, as was done at the Beatification on 14 May in St Peter’s Basilica.

The Holy Father will appoint a Representative who will officially read the Apostolic Letter with which the Roman Pontiff himself concedes the title and honours of a Blessed to the Servant of God in question. The Pope’s Representative will normally be the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

In accordance with the most recent practices, the rite of Beatification will take place during the Eucharistic celebration, precisely after the penitential rite and before the singing of the “Gloria”.
However, specific local reasons might suggest that the rite take place during a celebration of the Word of God or Liturgy of the Hours. In the Pontificate of John Paul II, a few Beatifications were occasionally celebrated during First Vespers on Sunday or on a Solemnity.

It is preferable that the Papal Representative or Diocesan Bishop (or one of the Diocesan Bishops when Blesseds come from different Dioceses) preside at the liturgical celebration in honour of the new Blessed. The Secretariat of State will decide on this, after hearing the opinion of all parties concerned.

The Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff will coordinate with the particular Churches everything concerning the rite of Beatification.

b) Rites of Beatification in Rome

The parties concerned (Bishops and Promoters of the Cause) may ask the Secretariat of State for the rite of Beatification of a “non-Roman” Servant of God to take place in Rome rather than in the particular Church to which he or she belonged. The Secretariat of State will assess the reasons for this request. The same criteria which regulate the rites of Beatification that take place in Rome are applicable to rites taking place outside Rome.

The use of “booklets” is recommended. They should continue to be prepared by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff in order to enable the faithful to participate better in the celebration.

Lastly, it seems fitting that the rite of Beatification be substantially the same wherever it is celebrated. It is therefore to be hoped that an “Ordo Beatificationis et Canonizationis” may be drafted as soon as possible, edited by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff in agreement with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

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Categories: Roman Catholicism
  1. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    April 30th, 2011 at 16:53 | #1

    “Canonization is the supreme glorification by the Church of a Servant of God raised to the honours of the altar with a decree declared definitive and preceptive for the whole Church, involving the solemn Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.’ That statement alone reveals the multiple errors that are rolled up in beatification. The error that the church has the authority to legislate forgiveness and condemnation on earth, thus compelling God’s ratification in heaven. That anyone’s works save Christ’s alone on behalf of sinful man are worthy of glorification to the ‘honours of the altar.’ The false teaching of supererogation, and the treasury of merits are all built upon beatification.

    The crowds were shouting ‘san ora’ at John Paul’s funeral mass. It’s no surprise that the Vatican is feeling a bit of pressure to hurry the process along for one of the most popular Pontiffs of all time.

  2. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    May 1st, 2011 at 18:22 | #2

    I grew up on this sort of stuff, but these days I think Luther put it just right, in To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation: Let every man stay in his own parish, There he will find more than in all the shrines, even if they were all rolled into one. There you will find Baptism, the Sacrament, preaching, and your neighbour, and these things are greater than all the saints in heaven, for all of them were made saints by God’s Word and Sacrament.

  3. P. Enn Auksmann
    May 2nd, 2011 at 01:45 | #3

    “The error that the church has the authority to legislate forgiveness and condemnation on earth, thus compelling God’s ratification in heaven.”


    John 20:22-23

    Not in your Bible, Reverend?

  4. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    May 2nd, 2011 at 08:36 | #4

    @P. Enn Auksmann
    Yes indeed it is. And perhaps you have missed the point of it. This text does not give authority to the church to legislate forgiveness and condemnation on earth according to our fallen human whims, thus compelling God’s ratification of our actions in heaven. Rather this text gives us a comission to ratify on earth what God has already decreed in heaven. If the former is true, the Luther and many others are in hell, for God had to send him there because of the pope’s excommunication. If the latter is true, your sins are indeed forgiven, as you have heard your pastor declare to you often.

  5. P. Enn Auksmann
    May 2nd, 2011 at 13:14 | #5

    John 20:21

    The Church is the Body of Christ – He acts through His Church. That’s His promise and if you read John 20:21 in context of the following verses (and vice versa), then it’s clear, that the Church has the authority “to legislate forgiveness and condemnation”. Not “according to our fallen human whims” but according to the will and promise of God.

  6. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    May 3rd, 2011 at 10:01 | #6

    @P. Enn Auksmann
    Yes the Church is the body of Christ, yes he acts through the church. Perphaps we are now speaking of the same thing but misunderstanding one another. However you’re leaving out what I said, ‘thus compelling God’s ratification in heaven.”

    Suppose for instnce the Bishop of the Episcopal church in America decides that homophobia is a sin, and he proceeds to defrock and excommunicate a minister who has preached against same sex marriage. Is God then compelled to send the excommunicated pastor to hell because the church in its authority and the Bishop who is in the line of succession said so? That is what I mean by legislating forgiveness and condemnation that compells God to ratify our actions.

    I declare to sinners what Christ has done, and said and has given me the authority to do and say, which is free the penitent from the guilt and consequences of sin and to bind the guilt and consequences of sin to the impenitent. I think some of the difficulty lies in the English translation of Matthew 18:18 in which the future perfect passive Greek verbs are strange forms to English speaking people. We often use the future passive ‘shall be forgiven,’ but rarely the future perfect passive ‘shall (already) have been forgiven.” So rightly it could be rendered ‘whatever you bind on earth must be what is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth must be what is already loosed in heaven.”

    Absolution is Christ’s own authoritative word, spoken by human beings by Christ’s mandate, and received as the promises of the Gospel must always be, by faith alone. If I say, “your sins are remitted,” it is God’s Word, not mine, and no creature can strike it down. The office of the keys does not mean that salvation lay in the power and works of men.

    Luther says of this text: “The pope said that as soon as he had spoken, the remission followed. Christ preached to all the Jews, and never the less few believed-and never the less His words were God’s own. You are able to speak this word: that if anyone believes, sin is remitted. But you cannot [claim] to possess authority. To plant to water, to give growth [1Cor.3:6] these are far from each other. I am able to speak the words but not to give the growth. Through these words men are stirred up to faith. If I say ‘your sins are forgiven you,” he ought to believe it. If he does not believe, [the words] do not help at all, even though they are the words of God. It is not me whom he dishonors, but God, whom he believes to be a liar, and likewise the reverse [if he believes the words]. Therefore, disbelief is an insult to the divine majesty. The Word of God wants to be received in faith. This is the power that every Christian has.’ Luther’s Works American Edition. Vol 69 pg 338. Concordia Publishing House 2009

    In another sermon on John 20 Luther states: “He does not say, “Those whose [sins you forgive], I also forgive them.” We should not think: “God forgives above, and men [forgive] here below, [but] who knows whether God above wants to forgive?” This is what we did in the papacy; no one obtained firm consolation from the Absolution, but rather we invoked our patron [saints]. This text was buried under all of this. But Christ says “Do not gape toward heaven when you want remission of sins. Rather, you have it here below. If you have a pastor or a neighbor in a case of need, there is no need to seek the Absolution from above, because this Absolution spoken on earth is Mine. Why? Because I have so instituted it, and my resurrection will effect it. Therefore no one will accuse you, neither death nor the devil nor I Myself, when you have received this Absolution, since it is God’s own,” etc. It is true that God alone forgives sins, [but] how will I get to heaven? There is no need. Go to the pastor; in case of need, go tell your neighbor to recite the Absolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Then you have the Word; when they do it, Christ has done it.” Ibid. pg 416.

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