VATICAN CITY (RNS) Hundreds of pilgrims wind their way around St. Peter’s Square as tour guides shout in multiple languages. Beggars have their hands outstretched amid warnings of an invasion of pickpockets from abroad.

View down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

View down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Harris via Flickr


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Across Rome, hotels are full, streets are clean and the cash registers in the souvenir stalls are singing as the faithful pour in to the Eternal City for the dual canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII on Sunday (April 27).

Italian authorities are expecting at least a million pilgrims, including heads of state, prime ministers and diplomats from 54 countries. One group of Polish pilgrims is making the 2,000-mile trek on horseback, dressed in medieval costumes, to celebrate Poland’s most famous native son.

Yet despite the vast popularity of the two popes, there is intense debate about whether these canonizations are nothing more than an elaborate public relations exercise — and whether they should be taking place at all.

John Paul II will hold the record for the fastest saint to be canonized in the history of the Catholic Church. John XXIII is even more controversial since Pope Francis approved his canonization with evidence of only one miracle — instead of the two normally required.

“It’s controversial among the saint makers at the Vatican, who consider themselves sticklers when it comes to the miracle requirement,” said longtime Vatican watcher John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries.”

(1978) Pope John Paul hugs a Mexican youngster during a visit to Cuilapam, while attending the CFLAM III meetings. Religion News Service file photo

(1978) Pope John Paul hugs a Mexican youngster during a visit to Cuilapam, while attending the CFLAM III meetings. Religion News Service file photo


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“But Francis was actually using an ancient practice when he waived the second miracle requirement for John XXIII, recognizing that the faithful already know him to be a saint.”

In fact, Francis — who has shown himself as a man not easily bound by tradition — is quickly making his mark on the sainthood process. Last year, he also waived the second miracle requirement for his favorite fellow Jesuit, Peter Favre, who died in 1546 and whose sainthood cause has languished since 1872.

It is not unprecedented to have a pope waive the second miracle requirement. The last one to do so was John XXIII himself, who in 1960 waived it for St. Gregorio Barbarigo, a 17th-century Venetian cardinal for whom John XXIII had a particular veneration.

Santo subito!

When John Paul died in 2005, the streets of Rome were filled with shouts of “santo subito!” or “sainthood now!” His successor, Benedict XVI, waived the normal five-year waiting period so his sainthood could be fast-tracked.

Recognizing a miracle is a rigorous process. It is usually based on evidence of a cure that has no medical or scientific cause after an intense and lengthy investigation by a team of independent doctors, theologians and other consultants.

Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish postulator responsible for spearheading John Paul’s canonization, on Tuesday insisted that the Vatican has strictly adhered to canon law and that John Paul is a worthy candidate.

“He was very reflective with a great capacity for prayer and meditation,” Oder said. “John Paul II had that mystical depth of those who find God the source of life.”

Born in Poland, Karol Wojtyla survived Nazi occupation of his homeland and as pope played a major role in the fall of communism. He is considered one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century.

Recognized around the world for his humanity and charisma, he survived an assassination attempt in 1981, traveled to 129 countries and touched the hearts of millions. He became the most traveled pope in history and proclaimed more saints than all his predecessors combined.

Pope John Paul II, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, was enthroned on Oct. 22, 1978. Religion News Service file photo

Pope John Paul II, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, was enthroned on Oct. 22, 1978. Religion News Service file photo


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A tarnished legacy

Still, questions remain about whether John Paul did enough to respond to the clerical sex abuse scandal, in particular the activities of the founder of the Legion of Christ movement, Marcial Maciel Degollado.

Accused of abusing several boys and fathering several children, the Mexican priest was eventually removed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and died two years later.

“We conducted a specific inquiry for maximum clarity,” Oder told reporters on Tuesday (April 22). “ From the documents we studied, there was a clear result: There was no sign of John Paul’s personal involvement in this incident.”

John Paul and his closest advisers had held up the Legion and its founder as a model, even though the Vatican reportedly had documentation with credible allegations that Maciel was a pedophile with a questionable spiritual life.

“One of the questions here is whether a pope can be a saint and also make managerial mistakes,” Thavis said, “and I think Vatican officials would say yes.”

“Most people would agree that, as bad as the sex abuse scandal has been, it cannot be used to define John Paul’s legacy.”

In fact, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that a canonization was expected to generate debate within the church and no one was saying the pope was “perfect.”

“No one says the pope is infallible,” he said. “Someone might say John Paul is likable; others say less so. This is the beauty of the church.”

While millions of Catholics remember John Paul, far fewer recall John, known as “the good pope,” but he remains a popular figure in Italy and a patron saint of the church’s more progressive wing.

“When he was elected, he urged us to do more for the sick and those who suffer,” recalled Paola Pesaresi, a former schoolteacher from the city of Rimini. “He was like a father, like a friend. I remember I cried when he died.”

(1961) With his new 25,000-word encyclical, Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII has joined two other pontiffs whose encyclicals on social problems constitute the greatest documents of their kind in the modern history of the Church. Religion News Service file photo

(1961) With his new 25,000-word encyclical, Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII has joined two other pontiffs whose encyclicals on social problems constitute the greatest documents of their kind in the modern history of the Church. Religion News Service file photo


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

‘No one doubts his virtues’

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, John was the fourth of 14 children and came from the region of Lombardy. His brief pontificate lasted from 1958 until his death from cancer in 1963, yet the aftershocks of his papacy continued to rattle the church.

He revolutionized the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which reviewed doctrine, replaced the Latin Mass with vernacular language and opened up the church to a broader ecumenical agenda.

His postulator, the Rev. Giovanni Giuseppe Califano, said John had “the perfume of his sainthood” when he was a priest, bishop and pope. When John’s sainthood was announced last year, Lombardi deflected questions about the process, saying, “No one doubts his virtues.”

John’s sainthood may have been fast-tracked to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, but others like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was beatified in 2003, are still waiting.

“Every canonization is a public relations exercise, in the sense that it promotes what the Catholic Church considers a saintly life,” Thavis said.

“What makes canonizing popes more problematic is that they bring with them the politics of their pontificates. And although the church tries to keep the focus on personal holiness, most people see it as a judgment on their performance as pope.”

KRE/MG END McKENNA

25 Comments

      • @Martin gran,

        Me? Uncivil?

        “About heretics there are two things to say. Their sin deserves banishment not only from the church by excommunication but also from the world by death.”
        – St. Thomas Aquinas

        It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle
        than for a Saint to be civil.

        I do not think these are trivial matters. When a criminal organization such as the Catholic Church elevates to its highest pantheon those who call for murder we should all be on watch!

      • @martin gran,

        Pope John Paul:
        “Aids is bad, but condoms are worse”

        And 20 million Africans died.
        Across Africa, The Catholic clinics refused to hand out condoms to women who begged to be saved from their AIDS infected husbands.

        They died of AIDS instead.

        All the while, The Catholic Church KNEW AIDS could be prevented with condoms but they refused to help those women. I cannot measure the disgust I feel.

        Almost 3 times the size of the Jewish Holocaust – and much of it was preventable with condoms. We can only marvel at the ignorance of Catholics.

        • Totally agree and I’m a Christian albeit I’m not RC as I left because of the hypocrisy and the cover ups but saying that Atheistic groups secular organisation not fair any better if anything there worse. So it’s not right for us to adopt a greater than thou stance without realising for every finger pointed at religious organisations secular organisation have 3 pointed at them too for their sheer lack of incompetence in protecting the vulnerable

    • Cosmostheinlost: Anyone who has studied the history of religion or the Christian church–or almost all other religion, for that matter–should know very well all those very evil “far different reasons that we’re not willing to acknowledge yet.”

  1. “The Vatican reportedly had documentation with credible allegations that Maciel was a pedophile with a questionable spiritual life.”

    If Pope John Paul had information like this and and failed to deal with it publicly what then is the meaning of ‘sainthood’?

    Isn’t ‘Sainthood’ just another way to set up a wall around questionable characters?

    The Vatican is knowingly sanctifying obstruction of Justice and it wonders why support is dwindling.

  2. Certainly too soon for John Paul II, and too questionable a procedure given his inaction in the midst of the explosion of the worldwide sex scandal by clergy, including its brazen cover-up by his bishops. Consider how John Paul II rewarded Cardinal Law of Boston for his protection of pedophiles by moving him to a pompous sinecure in Rome out of the reach of our civil justice system.

    There was only good that came out of the papacy of John XXIII, especially his grand effort to freshen the stale air of the church with Vatican Council II. Considering his time, just after a long line of very monarchical popes, even if John XXIII was not a saint, he was certainly a super-hero for true goodness in a dictatorial system.

    Another fault of John Paul II and his managed successor, his grand inquisitor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Josef Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, was the non-stop work of the two of them to “reform the reform” of John XXIII’s great council. They damaged the church immensely by those actions.

    Contrary to their plans and wishes, they got modern people to begin questioning many of the ancient, dictatorial ways of popes and bishops and the church at large. Contrary to their hopes and plans, they caused people to start thinking for themselves, questioning, and making their own decisions. That was a good and unexpected side benefit of their autocracy

    There are no two Catholics, any more than there are any other two Christians or any two religious people, whose belief systems are the same. It is the nature and the right of people to form their own beliefs. It is long past the time to be accepting catechisms, encyclicals, or any other proclamations that presumptuously attempt to dictate belief for people. Study and learn and think. Decide for yourselves.

  3. When I came to this site I thought it was going to be a humanitarian site of working towards unity, but you are all just a bunch of bigots. If you were once baptized Catholics, you know nothing about the faith and are very corrupted – get a Catechism of the Catholic faith and study instead of promoting such ignorant lies. Guess what if you have been baptized into the catholic faith when you die, you will die a Catholic whether you believe the faith or not.

    • @Noel,

      You said, “if you have been baptized into the catholic faith…you will die a Catholic whether you believe the faith or not.”

      A Priest’s incantation and a drop of water seals one’s fate?
      Fatuous, superstitious, fascist, totalitarian, authoritarian nonsense.
      No grown up should be told by another how they ‘must think.’

      Of course I must reject this claim with a big laugh.

    • Re: “If you were once baptized Catholics, you know nothing about the faith and are very corrupted – get a Catechism of the Catholic faith and study instead of promoting such ignorant lies.”

      Have you actually paid attention to some of the comments? Or are you merely sanctimoniously enraged that people dared make unflattering comments about your Church?

      If the latter, then you missed comments concerning Pope John Paul II’s purposeful choice to allow priests in his service to molest children and to allow the bishops over them protect them from prosecution. You missed the part where the Church refused to distribute condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa and by doing so condemned millions to illness and death. You missed the part where John Paul was good friends with a priest, Marcial Maciel Degollado, whom he had been told was a philandering pedophilic con-man running a sham clerical order, but chose to do nothing about it.

      Are these things not significant? What part of the Catechism permits any of these behaviors? Why would reading the Catechism convince anyone that John Paul was not guilty of, at best, dire neglect of his duties?

      Re: “Guess what if you have been baptized into the catholic faith when you die, you will die a Catholic whether you believe the faith or not.”

      I was baptized into the Church but am Catholic no longer. By the Church’s own definition I am an apostate. Look that up in your Catechism, if you wish.

      Given what the R.C. Church has done through history … a history that I know very well, having earned a degree in medieval studies, so don’t begin to suggest I’m ignorant of it. … and given that it has so many militant apologists who absolutely refuse to accept that it might have done anything it needs to atone for, and who instead get their knickers in knots when someone says anything negative about their Church … I’m happy to have left it behind. Good riddance.

      • I agree and having a B A in theology etc I can say that when you stop believing in transubstaniaton the sacrifice of the mass and reject the papacy as having authority you have very much left the Catholic Church as I have done and happy I have and follow Christ alone

  4. Rev. Larry Hansen

    If I were Dictator/Pope, I would set a 50-100 year bar between anyone’s–even the Pope’s–death and any formal recognition such as sainthood, which has become even more of a politically-driven popularity contest in recent years. When John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, some folks thought HE was the equivalent of a Christian martyr. The intervening years seem to have proven otherwise. My sense is that, when the smoke (incense or otherwise) clears and the evidence is in, John Paul will be seen to have been a great Actor on the world stage (Central America a notable exception), but small-minded in his pastoral theology and in matters of the heart–not to mention woefully (and perhaps willfully) ignorant on matters of concern to 50%+ of the human race; i.e., women.

    • Well, Mr. Rev. Larry you are definitely not a roman catholic priest, so your opinion, which it surly is …is there. If you are a Roman Catholic priest you are a heretic or schismatic one. This little corner of the world is not a proper place to debate your opinion of Blessed John Paul ll. There is not enough room to have a normal discussion. They say ignorance is bliss but it is never bliss for the one who has to live with the ignorant — not bliss at all. The reason it is not bliss is education takes time, work and the willingness to do research–

        • Greetings Conrad Noll: Well, I am never informed totally regarding the mystery of the Church, so acknowledging a huge amount of ignorance I work to acquire more knowledge by studying and going beyond the poorly clad main stream media . Yet, I find ways to discover the churches beauty and mystery. Since I believe in Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Teaching magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit, I have a wealth of avenues to walk through and study. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. “These 4 characteristics are linked to each other. They indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)
          The Church founded by Christ in his preaching of the Good News, … the coming of the kingdom of God, —in the fullness of time God sent his son to redeem humanity. His miracles demonstrate that the kingdom has already come to earth.
          It is amazing that God, knowing how ignorant I am of this mystery of the Church, has given me such a gift through the sacraments and He gives this gift to all who desire it or not. http://www.strangenotions.com/page/2/ this is a great link about atheism, I wonder if any of the atheists above would have the courage to go to this link and argue their points?

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