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  • John Thavis

Two popes, two saints, two questions

Pope Francis today chose April 27, 2014, as the canonization date for Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, a move that sets the stage for one of the most unusual and significant events of modern church history.

Proclaiming as saints two of his predecessors taps into some deep populist sentiments among Catholic faithful. Yet it also raises questions about the saintmaking process and the relationship between sainthood and papal performance.

The date chosen by Pope Francis makes sense. From a practical point of view, it gives Polish pilgrims in particular an opportunity to travel to Rome at a time of year when roads will presumably be free of snow and ice. April 27 is also Divine Mercy Sunday, which Pope John Paul made a church-wide feast to be celebrated a week after Easter. The pope died on the vigil of Mercy Sunday in 2005.

Last July, Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to Blessed John Paul II’s intercession, clearing the way for his canonization. At the same time, in a surprise move, Francis proposed that Blessed John XXIII be canonized at the same time, even though a similar second miracle was lacking.

Francis had a number of reasons for taking this unusual step. For one thing, the church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. For another, the new pope has clearly found inspiration in the vision and style of John XXIII, the much-loved Italian who was pope from 1958-63.

I’m convinced the pope also wants the dual canonization to be a unifying event, demonstrating that diverse models of holiness have a home in the Catholic Church.

But the canonizations inevitably raise questions, as well. One is procedural: in most cases, the church’s saintmaking norms call for approval of two miracles before canonization – a first miracle before beatification and a second one before canonization.

If a pope simply waives the miracle requirement (and no one is questioning his right to do so), what does it say about other pending sainthood causes? Are we reaching the point where miracles are no longer needed as a divine seal of holiness?

I spoke recently about this issue with Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who formerly headed the Vatican’s sainthood congregation. He told me the miracle requirement was not disappearing.

“Of course, sainthood exists independent of a miracle. But it’s still a valuable confirmation of holiness,” he said. The waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII was simply the exception that proves the continuing validity of the rule, he said.

An even thornier question is to what extent, if any, canonization endorses or exalts a pope’s decisions as head of the universal church. In 2009, when the cause of Pope Pius XII was being hotly debated, the Vatican addressed this issue, saying that while the sainthood vetting process must take into account the historical context in which a person lived, it was “not a judgment on the historical effects of all his operative choices.”

Likewise, Pope John Paul II once said that in beatifying or canonizing a pope, “the church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made.”

Nevertheless, for many Catholics, the church will be canonizing “John Paul the Great” and not simply a very holy man. His role in the demise of communism, his global travels, his political skills and his development of the church’s teaching authority, in the minds of many, are all part of what made him a saint.

On the other hand, critics who fault the Polish pope for his handling of the priestly sex abuse scandal are bound to question the wisdom of this canonization.

I expect that in coming months we’ll hear the Vatican explain that these popes are being held up as models of virtue and holiness, and not inducted into a papal “hall of fame.”

Historical note

The custom of proclaiming popes as saints was strong in the early church, an era in which many pontiffs were martyred. Of the first 50 popes, 48 were declared saints. That trend stopped in the Middle Ages, and over the last 700 years only two popes have been proclaimed saints.

It seems that recent popes are on a much faster track to sainthood, a trend inspired in part by Pope Paul VI, who launched the sainthood causes of Pius XII and John XXIII at the end of the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII was beatified in 2000. John Paul II was beatified in 2011.

At present, the causes of Pius XII and Paul VI have advanced to the point where they await only a miracle for beatification, the major step before canonization. The cause of Pope John Paul I is also being studied at the Vatican.

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