This week the Vatican announced that two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, will soon be declared saints at a ceremony to be held in Saint Peter's Square.
The upcoming saint-making event will indeed be a grand spectacle. Trumpets will blast, bells will ring out and organs will blare, and huge banners depicting the two new saints will be unfurled for the faithful to venerate. Priests, monsignors, bishops and cardinals will sit in high places of distinction, all dressed in their finest vestments - royal purple and crimson. And of course, the man in white, the Pope will sit at the very pinnacle of everything and declare that his pope-predecessors are now saints.
In the square below, hordes of people will mill around in the crowd and observe this grand saint-making event - the "great unwashed masses" watching the important people on center stage, praying to the really important people (the 2 new saints), hoping that somehow the new saints up in heaven might design to grant them the favors they desire.
As I see it, the whole process of declaring people saints and the upcoming spectacle of the saint- making event in Saint Peter's is an icon of exactly what is wrong with the institution of the church - not just the Roman Catholic Church but, for the most part, churches in general.
Walk into a service in almost any Christian church in the world on this Sunday and you will immediately see who is more important and who is less important - clergy and other leaders all dressed in elegant vestments, sitting in places of distinction, often behind a rail or on a stage. It's pretty obvious that these are the "holy ones," the educated, the informed. Then there is the crowd out in the pews - the great unwashed masses, the sheep to be led around by the shepherd.
I am sure that some of my clergy friends might wail in protest at this depiction of what goes on each Sunday in many if not most churches, but the fact is that this is how the institution is designed. It is set up to make some people shepherds and others sheep. It is designed to be hierarchical with some select few at the top while the majority mill around as the "great unwashed" at the bottom of the pile.
The problem with all this is that it seems so contrary to what Jesus taught and intended for those who would be his disciples.
There is a passage in the Gospel of John that is often left unquoted. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus gathers his disciples for a final meal and gives them the commission to carry on the work he had begun in his earthly ministry:
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me
will do the works I have been doing,
and they will do even greater things than these
Imagine it, Jesus the child of God who brought light into the darkness, Jesus who healed the sick and embraced the outcast, Jesus who brought such great hope into the world, commissions and empowers "all" his disciples (whoever would believe) to do even greater things than he did. There are no unwashed masses, no sheep milling around to be led by a few shepherds. Everyone is empowered to continue Jesus' work of bringing light into the darkness of an alienated world.
What would it be like if all those hordes of people who will soon gather to witness the making of "saints" in Saint Peter's Square would actually realize they are the saints, empowered to do even greater things than Jesus' did?