Ronald C. FINUCANE. Contested Canonizations: The Last Medieval Saints, 1482-1523. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011. x+ 274 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8132-1875-5, $64.95, hardcover.
Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Brooklyn, New York.

This posthumously published work of the medievalist Ronald Finucane was shepherded into print by Simon Ditchfield, a colleague at the University of York. Ditchfield supplied a bibliography and index to a work that had already been submitted to the press, but the text itself remains Finucane’s. The book presents five case studies of saints canonized at the dawn of the Reformation: Sts. Bonaventure, Leopold of Austria, Francis of Paola, Atoninus of Florence, and Benno of Meissen. These were the only saints canonized during the period detailed by Finucane. The focus on these saints is not hagiographic. Rather, he set his sights on the methods and politics of saint making. An ample use of source material—both primary and secondary—allowed Finucane to weave a very tight argument that he gives in a crisp summation: “holiness, in and of itself, was never enough” to acknowledge a saint.

Consider the processes for Sts. Francis of Paola and Benno of Meissen. An ascetic of wide repute—both among ordinary Catholics and the French royalty—Francis detested money, preferred his hermitage, and could, it seems, cure at will. With such virtue and miracles in great evidence, one would consider this saint’s case on a kind of fast track and indeed, it took a mere twelve years to advance the cause to its ultimate conclusion. But for Benno it took 417 years. The differences in the time periods are stark, yet the same kinds of delays are evident in each case. Much of this is political, as when the pope sought maximal advantage in bringing honor to the King of France, to whom Francis was sent as an emissary, or to the emperor-elect Charles, whose influence on the thought of German Catholics was seen as a bulwark against Lutheranism—an influence enhanced by the recognition of a saint from a geographically vital region.

Finucane showed his mastery of the sources by examining the letters that frequently passed between postulators, their financiers and patrons, and members of the Roman curia. Can we get an appointment with the pope? Can we hope to obtain a favor? Can we expect payment in order to move the process forward? So often the fickle whims of these officials were added to an already complicated set of legal procedures that had been worked up by Roman canonists over the previous three centuries. Fortunately, the clarity and arrangement of Finuncane’s translations signal how even the most optimistic devotee required the patience of Job in the face of so much foot dragging. They also required deep pockets—to assuage those cardinals inclined to reject certain testimonies on the miracles, to pay for masters of ceremonies to place a canonization on the pope’s liturgical calendar, or to erect the shrine necessary to recoup some of the initial investment.

Deponents were almost inconsequential by this time period. While it was a necessary and established aspect of the canonization process to take local testimony both on the life and on the alleged miracles of a would-be saint, Finucane makes the point that it was what was done with those testimonies once gathered that really mattered. Traducing their value was the role of key officials. So, it was neither accidental nor a fact of small consequence that the protector of the Franciscans—many of whom had mixed feelings over Bonaventure’s canonization—just so happened to be the “nephew” of Pope Sixtus IV (Giuliano della Rovere) at a time when St. Peter’s Basilica was under construction. Not only was it his role to push the cause through, he saw to it that the testimonies were laid in the proper hands and that the advocates explained the nature of the cause according to the canonical rules. Additionally, of course, the ducats poured in from Lyons, where the saint was entombed, assisting in the development of the fabric of St. Peter’s. For all the good its protector did and the doors which the funds opened, it did not help poor Bonaventure when his shrine was desecrated by the Huguenots in 1561, nor did the saint’s body find any ultimate repose. His head, which had been removed in order to prevent Protestant maliciousness, was permanently lost in the French Revolution.

The time period under Finucane’s magnifier was not, perhaps, an ideal one for saint making. So many deaths in the Chair of Peter and so many European wars did not make for optimal conditions which engendered serene judgment. Yet the Church has its saints. For providing the history of late medieval saint making, a transitional moment in ecclesial life, we have a debt to pay to one who, we can hope, has joined their celestial company.

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