Canonization and the emerging Benedict XVI
John Paul II, both legally and by force of his personality, improved the Church's ability to recognize contemporary examples of holiness. But, by canonizing over 450 saints (more than all the popes since Trent combined) and by beatifying more than 1,300 men and women besides, John Paul's vital message that the "universal call to holiness" (Lumen gentium V) could be lived in modern times was (in the opinion of many) being steadily diluted by an avalanche of names that, with few exceptions, would never be recognized beyond small circles of compatriots.
Moreover, most of the examples of those living the universal call to holiness seemed less than universal: while they came from many places around the world, the vast majority of canonizations and beatifications under John Paul II were of clergy and religious; of those laity lifted to the altars, almost all of them were martyrs. But how many examples of how to be a good nun, even in the twentieth century, does one need? Is there really, for all practical purposes, no way for laity to become saints except by martyrdom?
Beyond these pastoral questions, Benedict XVI's letter also communicates some important theological points. I'll mention just one: martyrdom must be carefully distinguished from other instances of religious persecution and murder, even those committed against Christians, by this crucial fact: a martyr accepts death delivered out of hatred for the Faith. A drive-by shooting victim, shot outside of a church because the killer hates Catholics, is not a martyr (for lack of acceptance of the death by the unaware victim). A Catholic priest thrown into a concentration camp because he is a priest, is a victim of religious hatred, but not a martyr (for lack of the witness ending in death). A pious Catholic girl who flees soldiers intent on raping the women of a village, during which flight she is shot, is not a martyr (for lack of the soldier's hatred of the Faith).
Yes, we all know there are a few close cases such as Maximilian Kolbe and Gianna Beretta Molla; a blog is not the place to analyze them. Moreover, note that each of the above examples might well describe a saint (if not a martyr). Finally, bear in mind that once the Church canonizes someone, we have the assurance that they are now with God in Paradise--no matter what procedural rules were being applied at the time.
Nevertheless, Benedict XVI's letter to the Congregation enables us to ask some probing questions about the canonization and beatification process without appearing disrespectful of the worthy goals that John Paul II was, by his lights, trying to serve.