On Wednesday, Pope Francis celebrated a mass completing the canonization of Father Junipero Serra, an eighteenth century Spanish priest who founded nine missions up the coast of what is now California [thereby bestowing on that great state a series of city names beginning in "San" -- San Diego, San Francisco, and so forth.] It was widely reported that the Catholic Church had "made" Junipero Serra a saint, thus reinforcing a widespread misunderstanding of the condition of sainthood. As my personal homage to the visiting Pope, I hereby offer a clarification. Think of it as Bob Wolff's contribution to the catechism.
Adam fell, disobeying God's command to refrain from eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because we are all descended from Adam, that first or Original Sin stains all of our souls. God's infinite and implacable justice demands that each of us be punished for that Original Sin and all of our other sins, even if by God's infinite and incomprehensible mercy some of us are to be saved and gathered into God's bosom, there to reside for all eternity in Heaven. Thus it is that at death those souls destined for Heaven must first spend a long and very painful time Purgatory, where they shall be punished for their sins.
However, a tiny handful of exemplary souls whose time on earth has been marked by supererogatory acts of faith and charity are, again by God's mysterious charity, excused from the torments of Purgatory and taken instantly upon death into the blessedness of Heaven.
Because these few blessed individuals reside at the right hand of God now, and not at some future time after the Last Trump, it is possible for them to intercede with the Lord, to appeal to Him to answer the prayers of one of the faithful. Hence the practice has sprung up of praying not directly to God but to one of the blessed souls already in Heaven.
The souls who have been taken directly to Heaven, bypassing Purgatory, are called Saints. As should be manifest from this elementary exposition, it is God, and only God, who "makes" a Saint [for of course even Saints are sinners, bearing as they do in their souls the mark of the Original Sin.]
But who is a Saint? To whom may the faithful pray, in hopes of intercession with the Lord? The Roman Catholic Church, ever mindful of the needs of its flock, undertakes to ascertain which souls, now departed, have been thus singled out by God for immediate entry into Heaven. Now, the indisputable mark of election [which is the term used to describe God's selection of a sinner for Sainthood] is a miracle, a divine contravention of universal natural law. And because it is a deeply conservative institution unwilling to act precipitously ["fools rush in where angels fear to tread," as Alexander Pope remarks in The Dunciad], the Church requires evidence of three miracles performed in the name of, or after prayers directed to, a departed individual before declaring itself satisfied that the individual is indeed a Saint. as the Church is also a thoroughly bureaucratized institution, there is, as we might expect, an Office of the Holy See whose function it is to evaluate the many claims of miraculous interventions that its credulous parishioners are forever putting forward. This Office is staffed by wise and sceptical guardians, who examine each claim with a basilisk eye. rejecting far more claims than it certifies. Not every vision of the Crucified Christ in a tub of butter is a miracle!
Thus it is that with implacable rigor and infinite care, but, by a happy accident, just in time for the Pope's visit to the United States, Father Junipero Serra has been determined to be among that little band of souls whose exemplary life moved the Lord to take him immediately to Heaven upon his death two hundred thirty-one years ago. The Mass celebrated by the Pope was an acknowledgement of that Act of Divine Mercy.
Class dismissed. Now go and sin no more.