Papal tours are, in many ways, the Olympics of the religion-news beat and, in each and every one, there are complicated stories that require even the most experienced of reporters to improve the quality of their research folders.
And so it is with the Associated Press team that cranked out a "Pope Watch" feature the other day on some of the colorful details of the Pope Francis visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. This version ran in The New York Times.
In one case, the editors got a bit too eager to find yet another example of this charismatic, superstar pope being willing to push traditions aside and do his own thing. This led to a mistake that I hope they correct.
The subject is the canonization of the Blessed Joseph Vaz as Sri Lanka's first saint. The background on Vaz notes that:
... He was actually born an Indian in 1651 in what was then the Portuguese colony of Goa. Vaz spent 23 years ministering to the Catholic community in Sri Lanka, sometimes working in secret because of the threat of persecution by the island's Dutch rulers, who were die-hard Calvinists.
Note the persecution reference.
Later in the piece -- under a "What Miracle? subhead -- readers are told the following:
When Pope Francis canonizes Sri Lanka's first saint ... he'll again prove he has little tolerance for pointless rules as he skirts the Vatican's normal saint-making regulations.
While the church traditionally requires two miracles for sainthood, the Vatican never confirmed a second attributed to the intercession of Vaz, who is credited with reviving Catholicism during anti-Catholic persecution by Dutch colonizers. Rather, Francis simply signed off on a decision taken by the Vatican's saint-making office that Vaz warranted canonization.
It's the same thing Francis did for a far better-known new saint, Pope John XXIII, and is a sign that Francis firmly believes that the faithful need more models of holiness without the technical, time-consuming and costly process of confirming inexplicable miracles.
So what is the journalism problem there?
The problem is that the church has never required evidence of miracles when there is a case that the person died as a martyr, either by execution or under the duress of a lifetime of persecution and suffering.
With a few clicks of a mouse, reporters can find one of the actual petitions -- this one from 2014, addressed to Francis -- from the Joseph Naik Vaz Institute. It notes:
We had heard in the year 2000, that Pope John Paul II was going to canonize groups of Martyrs without the final miracle for the Grand Jubilee. We personally met with the former Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Saints, Cardinal Saraiva Martins, in 2000. He agreed that Blessed Joseph Vaz could be classed as a Martyr like those martyrs in the Roman Martyrology who were not killed but lived and died under persecution.
Thus, the petition ends with this direct appeal:
We therefore respectfully petition Your Holiness to canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz as a Martyr without the final miracle if necessary, and to overcome the handicaps and obstacles that this 3-century old Cause for a great and worthy Missionary and Founder of a 1.3 million-strong living local Church of Sri Lanka has suffered. He is a very unique and great Saint, a priest who lived a life of saintly self-sacrifice that Your Holiness advocates for priests today, as well as a light for inter-religious dialogue who fully deserves to be included in the Catholic calendar of saints for his missionary work under persecution and selfless service of the abandoned.
In other words, the pope was asked to follow one of several traditions that lead to canonization and he did so. What is rebellious about that? What rules did he thrust aside in his supposed march to modernity?
Now, if you do some online research about this canonization -- for a basic search result click here -- you'll see lots of writers, mostly in Catholic settings, including this martyrdom angle.
Time for a correction by Associated Press editors?