Pope John Paul II, on the cusp of the fastest canonization in recent history, will be honored in a double ceremony this weekend in Rome along with a pope whose death 51 years ago spurred the first modern instant-sainthood campaign.
On April 27, Pope Francis, 77, will declare the sainthood of John Paul, who died nine years ago, and John XXIII, who passed away in 1963, in the first double pope canonization since the Middle Ages. Dignitaries including French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the king of Spain will join as many as 800,000 pilgrims to see Francis bring together two sainthood drives that came to represent two of the most influential visions for today’s Church.
Neither campaign succeeded in fully sidestepping the protocol and miracle investigation of modern-day canonization, though both benefited from shortcuts that sped up the process. “Sainthood Now,” the slogan on banners held by mourners at John Paul’s funeral in 2005, has come to symbolize the fervor of both camps, and the original Italian, “Santo Subito,” was chosen as the official smartphone application for pilgrims this weekend.
“These were two popes who had the courage to innovate,” said Andrea Tornielli, author and coordinator of Italian newspaper La Stampa’s Vatican Insider news site. “In 1963, no one would have unfurled a banner in St. Peter’s Square. But for both popes there was this widespread fame of saintliness.”
The drive for John Paul, the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla, was kick-started immediately after his death by then-newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, in breach of the standard five-year waiting period. For John XXIII, whose campaign developed more slowly, it was Francis who cut through the red tape by waiving the Vatican’s two-miracle requirement.
That departure from tradition gave Francis the chance to honor John XXIII, an Italian who introduced the mass in vernacular, alongside John Paul, whose worldwide celebrity remains fresh though his later years were marred by revelations about sexual abuse carried out by priests. In 2011, six years after his death, Wojtyla drew 1 million spectators to his beatification, a ceremony marking the next-to-last step on the path to sainthood.
John XXIII was “a good country priest with a very large sense of humor and a great saintliness,” Francis said last year. John Paul was “a missionary, a man who brought the gospel everywhere. You know that better than me.”
The ceremony will start at 10 a.m. local time, with canonization mass celebrated by Francis. Relics of John and John Paul will be presented during the liturgy. Of the 800,000 visitors expected by retailers association Confcommercio this week, just a portion will fit outside the cathedral in St. Peter’s Square and the adjacent Via Della Conciliazione. The rest will watch on closed circuit jumbo screens set up around Rome’s city center.
Over 2,500 civil protection agency volunteers and 500 catholic association volunteers will work alongside police and city authorities to manage the flux of people, according to the Rome City Hall website.
Benedict, now pope emeritus with no role in governance, is welcome and may make a public appearance at the event, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said April 22. Benedict has lived privately within the walls of the 44-hectare Vatican City since stepping down last year for health reasons. The German-born Benedict is the first pontiff in 600 years to retire.
President Barack Obama is sending adviser John Podesta, who will lead the U.S. delegation comprising Representative Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and legislative director Katie Beirne Fallon.
The legacies of John XXIII and John Paul continue to influence Church strategy as its leaders wrestle with issues like divorce and contraception and plan remedies for the sexual abuse of children by priests. Policy debates within the Vatican are often engaged by officials who identify with either John, on the one hand, or John Paul, on the other.
Francis “recognized that many progressive Catholics loved John XXIII but have reservations about John Paul II, and many conservatives loved John Paul II and have reservations about John XXIII,” said Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter. The joint canonization was done “very purposefully as a way to reconcile different voices in the church.”
Building church unity has been a hallmark of Francis’s first 14 months in power, even as he made headlines with remarks about homosexuality and a promise to punish child abusing priests. Francis has sought to bring his flock together in a fight against poverty and economic injustice globally, a recurring appeal that is often paired with a request to tone down confrontation over social issues in the developed world.
The ceremonies on April 27 will bring the number of canonized popes to 80 out of a possible pool of 264 deceased pontiffs. While sainthood was relatively easy to achieve for popes in the first millennium, with all of the first 35 popes being saints, more recent pontiffs have not had the same privilege. In the past 700 years, only two popes have become saints, Pius V in 1712 and Pius X in 1954, making this weekend’s celebration a unique event in recent Church history.
The overall rate of canonizations accelerated under John Paul, who oversaw 482 additions and did away with the institution of the so-called Devil’s Advocate, an official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints who compiled a case against each prospective candidate.
The Vatican was cleared to proceed with John Paul’s canonization after a second miracle, the recovery of a Costa Rican woman with an aneurysm in 2011, was certified by last year. John XXIII has one Vatican-approved miracle, the cure of an Italian woman with a stomach hemorrhage.
The modern era of canonization is understood to start after 1588 when Pope Sixtus V founded the Sacred Congregation for Rites to oversee the canonization process.
John XXIII’s renown endures in his native Italy, which still recognizes him as “The Good Pope.” His informal style and impromptu addresses -- typified by the so-called Speech to the Moon after his cancer diagnosis in 1962 -- broke the mold of the distant, intellectual pope. His 1962 train trip to the Italian town of Assisi, home of Francis’s namesake patron saint, was novel at the time and set the stage for the globe-trotting outreach of John Paul.
John’s papacy is also known for the Vatican II Council, a meeting of all the world’s bishops called in 1962 and ended in 1965, two years after his death. That council, the 21st in the 2,000-year history of the Church introduced changes like the vernacular mass, the recognition of freedeom of consicence and democracy, making interaction with the faithful simpler and more direct, traits that are now associated with Francis, the first South American pope.
The participants of the Vatican II Council pushed for John’s immediate sainthood, calling it “canonization by acclamation” at the time.
John Paul stirred loyalty and admiration for perseverance and for his role in helping overthrow communism in eastern Europe, though the late years of his pontificate were marred by the explosion of sex abuse scandals and the steps taken by church officials to shield perpetrators from justice. He survived a gunshot wound from a would-be assassin in 1981 and in later years suffered visibly from Parkinson’s disease. In his tenure, he visited 130 countries and toured every continent except Antarctica.
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