John XXIII, John Paul II counted among the saints

In what was dubbed the “Day of Four Popes,” Pope Francis — in the presence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — on April 27 declared two of his predecessors to be worthy of veneration by the whole Church. Under cloudy but rain-free skies, in front of crowds stretching down past the Tiber and in the presence of 150 cardinals, 700 bishops, thousands of clergy as well as dozens of political and religious leaders, Pope Francis solemnly enrolled John XXIII and John Paul II among the saints, bringing to 80 the number of popes (out of 266) who have been so honored.

After Pope Francis declared the formula of canonization, relics of the two saints were brought up in silver reliquaries to be displayed on the altar throughout the Mass: a vial of John Paul II’s blood and a piece of skin removed from the body of John XXIII when it was exhumed for his beatification on Sept. 3, 2000.

Two similar saints

Pope Francis’ decision last year to add John XXIII to the scheduled canonization of John Paul II inevitably caused observers to see the connections between the two — and to ponder Francis’ reasons for a twin canonization. The answer, inevitably, was the Second Vatican Council, which St. John XXIII called in 1958 and which St John Paul II — who had been a bishop at the council — implemented after 1978 in a pontificate that sought to resolve divisions over its meaning. By putting together two popes considered standard-bearers for rival Catholic camps, a number of media commentators said the current pope was seeking to unite the progressive and conservative wings of the Church.

During the historic dual canonization ceremony on April 27, Pope Francis officially proclaims two new saints, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, at the Vatican. Reports estimated that a half a million people flocked to Rome to partake in the celebrations. CNS photo by Paul Haring

Whether or not that was his intention, it provoked an eve-of-canonization joint declaration by two politically active Catholics in the United States: Republican Kim Daniels and Democrat John Gehring. Calling for Catholics to find common ground over poverty, abortion and immigration, they wrote that “defending the sanctity of life and fighting for social justice are not clashing political agendas, but part of the same moral framework for building a just society.”

But in his homily Pope Francis made no mention of divisions within the Church or competing views of the council, focusing instead on the two papal saints’ heroic faith in Christ, which allowed them to confront the tragedies of the 20th century without being overwhelmed by them. “These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy,” he told a crowd of half a million people in St. Peter’s Square (and millions more on television and the Internet).

He went on to link their holiness to their reform of the Church. “John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries,” he said, adding: “Let us not forget that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church.”

Pope Francis went on to describe John XXIII as “the pope of openness to the spirit,” and John Paul II as “the pope of the family” — a title he said the late pope had hoped to be remembered by. Francis then prayed for them to intercede in the forthcoming bishop’ synods (this year and next) whose task is to create new space for the Church to reach out to fragmented modern families while upholding the permanence of marriage. “May these two new saints and shepherds of God’s people intercede for the Church, so that during this two-year journey toward the synod she may be open to the Holy Spirit in pastoral service to the family,” Francis prayed.

Dignitaries attend

The canonization Mass was attended by more than 30 heads of state and delegates of 93 nations, among whom were the king and queen of Spain and the former Polish president and leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa. Also present were the two women whose miracles were attributed to Pope John Paul II: Floribeth Mora Díaz and Sister Adele Labianca.

Meanwhile, a delegation of 18 Jewish leaders from the United States, Israel, Argentina, Poland and Italy were a reminder of the role both popes played in transforming relations between Catholics and Jews in the past century. While papal nuncio in France, St. John XXIII arranged for Vatican visas for Jews fleeing the Nazis and as pope called the Second Vatican Council, which stripped anti-Semitism from Catholic theology and liturgy. St. John Paul II, who lost many childhood friends to the Holocaust, established diplomatic ties with Israel and became the first pope to visit the Shoah memorial in Jerusalem, the first to pray at the Western Wall and the first to pay an official visit to a synagogue.

The presence of Benedict XVI — distinguished from the other concelebrating cardinals only by his white skullcap — was evident from the start of the Mass, reflecting Pope Francis’ view that the emeritus pope should be more visible. He was among the first to appear and took his seat to be greeted by the procession of concelebrating cardinals and bishops as they emerged to take their places. When Pope Francis entered, he greeted and embraced him — to warm applause — and did so again at the end of the Mass.

Pilgrims flock

Pope Francis spent half an hour greeting religious and political leaders at the conclusion of the Mass before boarding the open-air popemobile for a 20-minute slow ride through St. Peter’s Square and down the Via della Conciliazione. On the way, the pope invited Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, to hop aboard for a quick embrace and thank you to the city of Rome for hosting the event. Despite wild predictions, numbers of the pilgrims who flocked to Rome did not go beyond a million — similar to the canonization of Padre Pio and the beatification of Mother Teresa in the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate.

The pilgrims, many of whom had camped out the night before, were dominated by the presence of Poles, but many from the north of Italy — including John XXIII’s birthplace of Bergamo — were also there to remember il papa buono, (“the good pope”), whose picture adorned a huge numbers of taxis and cafés. Pope Francis’ humility and good humor remind many Italians of St. John XXIII, whose brief term (1958-63) began a more collegial, less monarchic papacy. A vigorous pilgrim industry already exists in Poland, where a multimedia museum in Wadowice expects 250,000 visitors this year. But devotion to John XXIII is more modest. Angelo Roncalli’s birthplace of Sotto Il Monte (population around 4,300) lacks even a hotel. That is now expected to change.

Carrying the torch

In the lead-up to the ceremony, controversies turned on John Paul II’s record on clerical sex abuse, as well as the way Pope Francis (and Benedict XVI before him) appeared to override canonization procedures — Pope Benedict by beatifying John Paul II less than five years after his death, Pope Francis by dispensing with a second miracle for John XXIII. Vatican officials said it was John Paul II being canonized, not his papacy, and that procedures for canonization did not bind popes, who have always been free to respond to obvious popular devotion by recognizing saints.

Inevitably, the ceremony has led to comparisons between Pope Francis and the two new saints. The most obvious characteristic they have in common is that they were all surprise elections: Giovanni Roncalli was a compromise candidate in 1958 after none of the usual contenders achieved a majority, while Karol Wojtyla in 1978 and Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2013 were elected only after the Italians lost control of the conclave. All the three popes have been, or are turning out to be, transformative of both Church and world.

Austen Ivereigh is the author of a new biography of Pope Francis, “The Great Reformer,” to be published in the fall by Henry Holt (MacMillan).