A pair of popes headed toward sainthood

Today, the popes came in pairs.

First, Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict met in the Vatican Gardens, where together they blessed a new statue of St. Michael the Archangel – a project approved by Benedict and brought to conclusion under Francis.

Next, the Vatican released what was termed Pope Francis’ “first encyclical,” Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), a text that was written primarily by Pope Benedict before his retirement. Although signed by Francis, the encyclical is clearly Benedict’s in style and substance.

And then the Vatican confirmed canonization plans – not only for Blessed Pope John Paul II, which had been expected, but also for Blessed Pope John XXIII. It’s not yet certain that the two popes will be declared saints together, but remarks by a Vatican spokesman seemed to suggest that may happen before the end of the year.

The action on John XXIII was unusual because it illustrated that the Vatican is willing to bend its own rules, specifically a procedural norm that calls for approval of two miracles before canonization – a first miracle before beatification and a second one before canonization.

For Blessed Pope John Paul II, that second miracle was studied at length and given final approval today. It involved a Costa Rican woman who recovered inexplicably from a brain aneurysm after prayers to John Paul.

But for Pope John XXIII, who was beatified in 2000, no second miracle was on the horizon. Nevertheless, the Congregation for Saints’ Causes recommended that Pope Francis proceed to canonization of John XXIII, and the pope agreed, subject to confirmation by a consistory of cardinals.

There are several likely reasons for waiving the second miracle requirement for the canonization of Pope John XXIII, and the first is timing. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, noted the ongoing 50th anniversary of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. The spokesman added that John XXIII was much loved throughout the church, and that “none of us has any doubts about John XXIII’s virtues.”

It’s hard to believe that this decision does not reflect Pope Francis’ priorities, and his eagerness to revitalize the spirit of dialogue and interaction with the world that was characteristic of Vatican II and John XXIII.

Canonizing the two popes together would also create a broad-based, unifying event for the Catholic Church at the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate. It would show that sainthood, like the church, has room for very different models of holiness. On a more practical level, I think dual canonization would mute some of the criticism of John Paul II, particularly by those who believe he did not do enough to counter clerical sex abuse.

As for the Vatican breaking its own rules, there’s no doubt that Pope Francis can dispense with the second miracle requirement, just as Pope Benedict dispensed with the five-year waiting period before the beatification of John Paul II.

But the move is bound to raise questions about how the Vatican’s saintmaking procedures are applied, especially in view of Father Lombardi’s remark that discussion will continue about the need for miracles in the canonization process. The church generally used to require four miracles before canonization. That was reduced to two under Pope John Paul II, and some are now arguing that one might be enough.


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