Ratzinger waves his wand at Australia

Like Steve Jobs announcing a shiny thing to keep the fanboys drooling, Ratzinger has announced that nun Mary MacKillop will be canonised as Australia’s first saint.
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Nothing like a new hero to keep our minds off what the Vatican should be doing: attempting to atone and make amends for the endless revelations of decades of abuse, collusion and coverup at the highest levels of the organisation. But that’s another story.

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Quick bio: after being born in Fitzroy, Victoria in 1842 Mary moved to South Australia, where in 1866 she opened a school in an old stable in Penola then founded the Sisters of St Joseph. She set about founding over one hundred schools, orphanages and refuges for the needy and at the end of her days in 1909 she led over seven hundred sisters. Mary was actually excommunicated in 1871 for insubordination (excommunication: another telling piece of evidence that the Vatican’s priority isn’t living the words of a certain Palestinian chippie, rather the strict obedience of its employees). It didn’t last long though: a regional manager (bishop) spoke up for Mary and she was back in action in a few months (though her exoneration took a few years). Apparently she had a great effect on people: the campaigning for her sainthood began in 1926 and hasn’t let up. Unfortunately I can’t help but wonder whether any of the schools, orphanages or refuges she founded were tainted by the rape, torture and abuse that’s become synonymous with Catholic institutions of days gone by. I realise this behaviour didn’t occur everywhere there were priests or nuns, but such things have been revealed as very, very widespread indeed. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it happened in an isolated country town like 19th century Penola.

Now,  I have to wonder about sainthood – we could probably all rattle off several saints’ names without thinking about it; we could also name what they’re the patron of. But what is it you have to actually do to be canonised, what does being sainted mean for the dead person and why is it important enough to the living to run a century-long campaign? Interestingly, The Times reveals that Ratzinger actually tightened up the sainthood rules last year (nice how absolute spiritual matters can rest on the opinion of whoever’s in charge). According to some critics that old rabble-rouser John Paul Jones II had been running some kind of “saint factory” and rushing about canonising people after only one miracle! How very, very dare you! OK, back on topic. Criteria for sainthood:

Beatification, which confers the title Blessed, requires proof of one miracle attributed to the posthumous intercession of the candidate, usually a medically inexplicable cure. Sainthood requires two such miracles.

Okay then! Further research tells me that Mary, after her death, indeed interceded and cured a woman of leukaemia. For this, she was beatified by the Polish Pope in 1995 – the initial application for beatification was made in 1961, however, showing just how glacial the pace is in that big museum in Rome. 500 years to apologise to Galileo; 34 to verify an alleged miracle. They’re either very slow or very thorough. It seems Mary’s second miracle was verified recently by Ratzinger himself – a woman with inoperable cancer prayed and carried around a piece of Mary’s clothing and was cured. I believe a life of “heroic virtue” can also tip the scales in your favour. In fact, there’s a lengthy & very involved investigation by church authorities to determine a person’s holiness and the miraculous nature (or not) of their post-mortem antics. Interesting how in some areas the Vatican is happy to expend its resources performing detailed investigations of the actions of its employee.

So, bang, two miracles, heroic virtue, Mary’s a saint. Leaving aside my predictable skepticism about miracles in general, the process of actually verifying that one happened in the first place and the process of verifying it was performed by a particular dead person and not just God, another dead Catholic or Vishnu, what does that actually mean? Is there something better than Heaven open to her now? Does she get to do “God” stuff? Watch Jesus’ kittens when he’s off appearing in tree trunks and dog’s arses? Appear in her own inanimate objects? Side question: is any of this sainthood criteria/investigation business even in the Bible? It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t remember all this Orwellian bureaucracy.

What is a saint and what do they do? What are they for? About.com provides the following revelations:

The word “saint” literally means “holy,” and, in the New Testament, “saint” referred to all who believed in Jesus Christ and followed his teachings. St. Paul often addressed his epistles to “the saints” of a particular city (see, for instance, Ephesians 1:1 and 2 Corinthians 1:1), and the Acts of the Apostles talks about St. Peter going to visit the saints in Lydda (Acts 9:2). The assumption was that those who followed Christ had been so transformed that they were now different from other men and women and, thus, should be considered holy.

Okay. Holy people. Christians in general. Got it. But what about the dead ones as we know them today?

Canonized saints can be venerated anywhere and prayed to publicly, and their lives are held up to Christians still struggling here on earth as examples to be imitated.

Right! They’re dead people you can pray to. So you don’t just pray to God or his son Jesus or his weird half-brother the Holy Ghost or his mother Mary; you can pray to dead person who’s been canonised. Considering Ratzi canonised over 500 people himself last year and we’ve seen dozens, even hundreds of popes over the last 1500 years, there must be countless thousands of saints people can pray to for assistance and guidance and protection and a better sandwich. Tell me again how this Catholicism thing isn’t polytheism?

Well, About saw me coming:

The Difference Between Prayer and Worship

Many non-Catholic Christians believe that it is wrong to pray to the saints, claiming that our prayers should be directed to God alone. Some Catholics, responding to this criticism, have argued that we do not pray to the saints but with them.

Both groups, however, are confusing prayer with worship. True worship (as opposed to veneration or honor) does indeed belong to God alone, and we should never worship man or any other creature as we worship God. But while worship may take the form of prayer, as in the Mass and other liturgies of the Church, not all prayer is worship. When we pray to the saints, we’re simply asking them to help us, by praying to God on our behalf, or thanking them for having already done so.

 So it’s just a case of hair-splitting, really. It’s not polytheism because you don’t worship a saint, you just pray at them. And wear bits of their clothes. And have statues and icons and graven images of them hanging around your houses and churches. Some churches even hold boxes of their bones or other preserved body parts (being Catholics, I’m going to assume that for a nominal fee you can even touch them). A saint seems to be a middle-man or a demi-god. A patron saint has a special area of expertise (I wonder if God just allocates the patronage as soon as the Pope canonises them or they have to do some classes first?). Going on holiday? Ask St Christopher to delay your pilot’s heart attack. Irish? Ask St Guinness to bless you with an iron constitution. Australian? Ask St Kilda why he hasn’t let the footy team named after him win a bloody flag for the last billion years. With all the thousands of saint available, all you need do is pick your problem and google your saint. Lost your keys? There’s a saint for that.

So, you can pray to God, Jesus, Ghosty, Mary or any one of an endless range of saints but it’s not polytheism. It’s just that God has three family members and thousands upon thousands of holy immortal beings petitioning him on behalf of humanity. It’s the pantheon you have when you’re not having a pantheon. And once again, the Catholic church drops a layer of bureaucracy between you, the believer and God, the, um, god. Not content with throwing living priests and nuns and fathers and brothers and cardinals and Popes and all manner of capos & middle management & bouncers between man & God, there’s this whole other layer of fricking dead people to appeal to in case you think God can’t hear you.

Wait … what? You think God can’t hear you? You think God needs you to speak to him through all these countless zillions of people, living and dead? You think your almighty Creator of Everything needs someone in a special robe and special building saying special things in order to know what you need? What kind of second rate god is this guy anyway? It all sounds a bit suss … if I didn’t know better I’d say Catholicism is a millennium and a half-old bureaucratic superscam designed to frighten the lot of you into promising it your soul while you give it your money. And I’m not sure I do know better.
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