To date, in a pontificate of five years, Pope Francis has canonised forty-nine saints. This significant inflation of sanctification has come to a crisis with the canonisation of Pope Paul VI.
In a sense, of course, the elevation of Montini to the altars of the Church makes sense: it completes ‘the set’ of sanctified Popes since the Second Vatican Council. But there are also concerns, and not only about the Christian virtues of the recipient. We need to remind ourselves what, au fond, canonisation is. Canonisation is the official response of the institutional Church to a cultus among the people of God. Arguably the cries of ‘Santo Subito!’ at the conclusion of the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II were the beginnings of a popular cultus. No such claims could conceivably be made about the deeply controversial figure of Paul VI.
So why canonisation? The most plausible explanations involve internal church politics, and probably revolve around liturgical change. Arguably the most momentous change in the whole history of the Catholic Church was the outlawing of a rite which had been continuous from ancient times, and its replacement by Paul with one fabricated according to the tastes and predilections of modern liturgists. The upheaval in parishes across the globe was devastating and incalculable. It unleashed a bonfire of sacred art unseen since the Protestant Reformation.
It is this, perhaps, rather than a vague ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ which Francis is canonising. He has already declared himself the foe of Benedict’s rapprochement with the Roman Rite. The elevation of Montini demonstrates, ineluctably, that there is to be no turning back.