The Meaning of Fast-Tracking a Saint

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The path to sainthood for John Paul II was the fastest in modern history, raising eyebrows among traditionalists for packing a painstaking process that can sometimes take centuries into nine incredibly short years.[1]

Whether John Paul II should or shouldn’t be a saint isn’t the issue I am addressing here. This blog addresses the question of why the Catholic church has fast-tracked this process and the social meaning it reveals. I have been long intrigued (and amused) at the scientific-rational approach used to make the decision as to who can be legitimized as a Saint.   When a rational approach is used to judge whether a miracle is “instantaneous, lasting and clearly attributable to divine intervention”, the church is always going to be in trouble, because it is using a modernist/rational frame to identify a non-rational/spiritual phenomena. If we look at this process in reverse, it is the equivalent of letting priests pray over a new airoplane to pass it as safe to fly… pray for our safety by all means, but even the most devout would want a rational safety check before flying.   The modernist/rational domain, and the religious/spiritual domain cannot be fully separated, for religion exists in the modern context, and has to operate with reference to modern/rational thought- albeit always with some healthy tension between the domains. When this works well, sacred space can alert society to subjective truths, to all that is beyond the functional and rational, and help us reflect on how we live personally, collectively and with the natural world. Likewise the modern/rational domain can alert the sacred domain when it’s faith becomes distorted or perverse, in ways that need challenging in a modern pluralist society. Both domains must maintain enough difference from each other, because if they stray too far into each others territory both can become dangerously distorted. We see this occur when religious fundamentalism takes a leading role in modern politics (no matter whether in the middle east or the USA) the results are at best a mess, and at worst bring forth disaster. Likewise in the workplace beware of spirituality being advocated by leaders and writers who claim it increases productivity, employee engagement and improves the bottom line[2]. This is a perverse use of spirituality however authentically intended, and is another example of how one domain gets distorted when being used in the wrong space.

Today we live in a consumer society, a world where short-termism rules and instant gratification is demanded, and it is in this context that the Catholic church has short-circuited the process to fast-track John Paul II to sainthood. At his funeral calls for making him a saint were already being demanded by the zealous faithful….immediate gratification of their desires were soon to be fulfilled.    By omitting the need for a second miracle (two are needed to become a saint, John Paul II has one), and rushing the process achieves two things:

1)       It undermines the so-called modern/rational process for selecting a saint. Pope Francis is saying ‘this rational criteria for choosing a Saint is nonsense, its clear John Paul II is a Saint, so lets not go through a process that is mere pretence to prove it.’

2)      It aligns the ‘eternal and sacred’ process of choosing a Saint, with our modern, consumer society that is governed by instant gratification and short-termism in all things.

With the first point I believe progress is being made, as it undermines the need for rational verification of sainthood, moving towards the position whereby the sacred and secular are differentiated. With the second point I believe the Catholic church is stepping into dangerous territory. John Paul II is very marketable for the church, and his rapid rise to sainthood will give the church short-term leverage and kudos, whilst creating problems for the future. By reacting to consumer demand for his instant sainthood, and banking his immediate charismatic popularity, means that similar demands will just grow and grow and the church will look more and more like the materialist, consumerist and short-termist society, it claims it wants to change. The Washington post already reports talk of fast-tracking others “to pave the way to the quicker elevation of potential blockbuster saints such as Mother Teresa”.  As we see, Sainthood could soon begin to mimic modern, celebrity culture.

We need sacred spaces that open up our lives beyond rationality, functionalism, efficiency and beyond the modern faith of materialism and consumerism. Scientific-rationalism doesn’t account for the mystical, ethereal and the beauty and love that cannot be measured or accounted for in the market place.   The whole point of spirituality and religion is to open us to a different space, an eternal space, a liminal space, a ritualistic space, a holy space…. call it what you want, and access it how you choose, but this ‘spiritual space’ is one that should be protected and we lose it at our peril.

Leadership Lessons

1)       Leaders know your domain: don’t use the wrong philosophy or belief system in the wrong place.

2)      Think of the impact of short-term gains. Instant gratification will appease some people but may store longer term problems (i.e. the financial crisis!). A major difference between family owned and commercial businesses is the time-span issue. Family businesses think about the next generation and offer a better model of how commercial businesses should be run.

Coaching lessons

1)       Help leaders map their domain, if you hear them talking spirituality in order to gain personal kudos or more from their employees, challenge them!

2)   Push leaders to reflect on the longer term consequences of a short-term intervention.   And don’t collude with them to get your own instant gratification as a coach!

 

[1]http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/as-two-more-popes-are-canonized-a-question-emerges-how-miraculous-should-saints-be/2014/04/25/e81f50b1-20e3-4261-8803-91988e4cad01_story.html

[2]See Leadership a critical text Western 2013 Sage Pubs, for full critique on spirituality at work.

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2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Fast-Tracking a Saint

  1. I am not so sure that a celebrity culture surrounding a saint is such a bad thing. Does it not help to popularise the saint, make him/her approachable and relevant? It is not too difficult to think of Jesus as a celebrity – miracles, public speaking, surrounded by groupies etc. – and his celebrity image has survived for 2000 years.

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  2. Simon, interesting and very well-articulated reflection on these domains; I am much in agreement with your advice to caution business leaders who bring spirituality or religion into the performance-based world of organizational life. If spirituality is acknowledged in the form of appreciation for the meaning and values that each person carries with them in work and in life, that may be benign. By contrast, if advocated as an instrument of productivity or business results by those in management (“success gospel”), spirituality is distorted and employees vulnerable to a form of oppression that is tough for them to challenge. One should tread very carefully here, and the wisdom of the ages is to separate the secular and spiritual domains as a general rule.

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