Today’s canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II drew 800,000 people to Rome. I spoke with a small fraction of the massive crowd that filled the streets near the Vatican, but every one of them agreed: Two popes, two saints, two more reasons to be happy.
Much of the commentariat – and I include myself in that class -- has found issues to explore in this double canonization: the fast-tracking of John Paul II, the waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII, the politics of saintmaking and the ongoing tensions over the Second Vatican Council.
I’ve maintained that the double canonization is a unifying move by Pope Francis, an attempt to build a bridge between constituencies in the church who identify with the “liberal” John XXIII or the more “conservative” John Paul II.
I still believe that’s true. But among those in today’s crowd, and probably throughout the global Catholic population, that kind of analysis was not all that relevant.
“The were both good people, holy men. John XXIII was a man of vision. John Paul II was a man of action. But they had the same intention – to bring the church closer to the people,” said Rosemary Fabregas, a Catholic from San Francisco who sat in front of a Jumbrotron screen outside St. Peter’s Square.
An Italian pilgrim, asked about the saints’ differences, put it this way: “Differences? I don't know. The important thing is that they were both very spiritual and they both loved the poor.”
Pope Francis’ homily echoed their words. Francis did not delve into the politics of Vatican II, or the yin/yang factor some have found in this dual canonization. Instead, he said John XXIII and John Paul II demonstrated a common witness to Christian hope and joy.
Both of the new saints, Francis said, “saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles.” Both were men of courage, and “bore witness before the church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”
“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful … the mercy of God was more powerful,” Pope Francis said.
Pope Francis said Vatican II tied the two men together, too. Through the council, he said, both popes helped renew and update the church so that it corresponded more closely with its “pristine features,” as a “community which lived the heart of the Gospel, love and mercy, in simplicity and fraternity.”
Francis said John XXIII showed an exquisite “openness to the Holy Spirit” when he convened the council. In his own day, John Paul II became “the pope of the family,” a theme that is still at the center of church discussions ahead of the 2014/2015 Synod of Bishops, the pope said.
Pope Francis left aside the interpretations of Vatican II, and the debate on its teachings. Instead, he let the lives of these two saints take center stage. In this sense, it was a unifying event.
The theme of continuity was reinforced by the appearance of Pope Benedict XVI, who was a concelebrant at the Mass, though he did not stand at the altar. His arrival a few minutes before the liturgy drew prolonged applause from a public that has not forgotten the retired pontiff.
It was Pope Francis who encouraged Benedict not to spend the rest of his days hidden away in his Vatican residence, but to get out more. For this event, in particular, it would have been impossible to conceive of Benedict sitting in his room while two of his predecessors were being proclaimed saints.