With the canonisations of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II almost upon us, it is worth considering the obvious change in the nature of 'Sainthood', especially in recent years.
At one time hagiographies were for the most part brief and to the point, excelling in the supernatural, dotted regularly with the miraculous both in the saint's life and maybe more importantly after the saints death. St Thomas of Canterbury is an obvious example of a rather irascible divisive bishop, who was vindicated by his post-mortem miracles. Nowadays miracles don't seem important, some have suggested they should be dispensed with altogether, Pope John is being Canonised with only one to his name. Pope Francis has like his predecessors canonised people simply by decree, without cultus or any signs of the supernatural. Some modern miracles for example the deliverance of the American deacon of back problems as in the case of Blessed John Henry Newman have surprised even the postulators of the cause and really do seem somewhat 'thin'. In the world of the rational the supernatural becomes an embarrassment to many, even in the Church.
There are 20th Century saints like St Charbel and Padre Pio where the miraculous and the supernatural abound, where the cultus is so strong, and the popular demand for their canonisation would mean that in whatever age they would be raised to the altar, and even if they hadn't been they would be 'canonised' and their intercession sought by popular acclamation.
Pope John Paul canonised more saints than all the other Pope's in history, it was part of his sense that today holiness still exists and that holiness is available to everyone, it is very much the fruit of VII and modern spiritual movements like Opus Dei. It was almost as if every foreign trip involved the Beatification or Canonisation of a new tranche of Martyrs hardly heard of outside of their homeland or some obscure Mother Superior.
Benedict clarified the distinction between Blesseds and Saints, somewhat, the former having a local cultus, the latter a universal one, still it seems as if many of those 'formally listed' as Saints -that is what Canonisation means, or Beati, really have little of a cult, an interest in their literary works, even the dedication of institutions constitutes honouring their memory but hardly dulia, in the religious sense of previous age, which seemed to see saints above all as powerful intercessors with God. Of the three ancient requirements:: 1) an outstanding example of Christian living, 2) a life in which grace is manifest, and 3) signs that the prospective saint's intercession is heard, the 3rd, intercession seems to have been lost as a necessity for canonisation. Those critical of the Canonisation of the these two Popes, in fact those who are anxious about the canonisation of most of the 20th century Popes, suggest that it is a way of canonising a political idea rather than people.
The old debate about whether Canonisation is infallible or not I suspect has lost its edge, in the past it was ultimately about whether and individual was in Heaven or not, now everyone goes to heaven, the process has been stripped of the supernatural element, Aquinas is often quoted, but he says, “Because the honour which we show to the saints is a certain profession of faith by which we believe in the glory of the saints, it should be devoutly believed that not even in these matters can the judgement of the Church err,” the 'err' here is not the same as the Church erring in the same sense as its teaching on doctrine. What St Thomas seems to be suggesting that we respectfully acquiesce, more for the sake of unity than anything else.
Fr Faber, who could fairly be described as an Ultramontane in "An Essay on Beatification, Canonization, and the Processes of the Congregation of Rites" written in 1848, in the build up to VI suggests Aquinas thought Canonisation was more a pious belief rather than an inerrant act. Faber also is at pains to say the Church has never defined what it means when someone is Canonised. It is worth noting that VI seems to deliberately limit infallibility to faith and morals, and purposely avoided including the canonisation process.
The modern process of Canonisation seems more a political, a way of capturing history, rather than a declaration of something supernatural, more about the canonisation of ideas, rather than the declaration of outstanding holiness.
Around which modern Pope have Angels gathered to avert plague, which has levitated during Mass or bilocated for some pastoral errand, how many have been stigmatics, whose corpse has smelt of roses or remained incorrupt, who has appeared to countless members of the faithful after death or brought consolation to imprisoned or appeared physically on the battlefield?