The Sovereign Pontiff has decided to create a permanent commission in order to highlight certain historical figures qualified as “witnesses to the faith,” but who cannot be canonized because they do not fulfill the conditions set by the Church, even conditions largely relaxed over the past 40 years.
Cardinal Marcello Semeraro is rubbing his hands: the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints has his work cut out for him since Pope Francis decided, in a decree made public on October 5, 2022, to establish the “Commission of Witnesses of Faith,” by which they mean “those figures of men and women who, although not canonized, have forcefully manifested their faith.”
A “faith,” moreover, that is not necessarily that of the Catholic Church, for when asked who could claim the title of “witnesses to the faith,” Cardinal Semeraro replies: “The example which immediately springing to mind is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a Lutheran theologian and church minister who was killed for opposing Nazism. The Church does not proclaim him a martyr because he was not a Catholic. However, he is an emerging figure as a Christian witness.”
It must be understood: with such broad criteria, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and, why not, Buddha and so many others, can apply for the new open-sesame which will be issued by the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.
This is not new. Remember that on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, Pope John Paul II already wanted to highlight figures of men and women who could not be canonized, or had failed to be.
The project, entrusted to the very influential Community of Sant'Egidio, fizzled out, but the Roman pontiff has just relaunched it. No surprise, given the connection he has with Andreas Riccardi, founder of Sant'Egidio.
The announcement of the creation of the Community of Witnesses to the Faith was made on the sidelines of the colloquium entitled “Holiness Today,” organized at the Patristic Institute Antonianum held October 3 to 6.
It was no more and no less a question of “updating” – meaning changing the definition – of the notion of heroism of Christian virtues, as Msgr. Semeraro himself explained. And above all it means not allowing oneself to be locked up “in a castle of easy certainties” – understood as the Tradition of the Church – as Msgr. Bruno Forte, Bishop of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, reminded us.
Do our apprentice theologians suspect that they run the risk of opening a new Pandora's box? Several speakers pointed out very well that in the ever-present digital age, it is easy to falsify the digital data relating to a “witness of the faith” in the name of political or economic interests, which would be done once more at the expense of the Church.
This is a risk that at one time did not exist when four authenticated miracles were required to bring about a canonization process.
As such, historians will not fail to wonder whether the evolution of canonization processes under Pope John Paul II, with the aim of increasing the catalog of saints, was not the occasion of a wild rush forward of which the Commission of Witnesses to the Faith is only a sad illustration and certainly not the last.