Every spring in Rome, the big production is normally the Easter Mass celebrated by the pope. This year Easter remains the spiritual linchpin, but in popular terms it’s more like a warm-up act for next Sunday’s double-play canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
Here are five things to know about the biggest Vatican happening of early 2014.
First, putting these two popes together amounts to a call for unity between the church’s liberal and conservative wings.
In the Catholic street, John XXIII is an icon of the left, remembered as the pope who launched the reforming Second Vatican Council and opened the Church to the modern world. John Paul II is a hero to the right, the pope who brought down Communism, who fought what he called a “culture of death” behind liberalizing currents on abortion and other life issues, and who insisted on strong Catholic identity vis-à-vis secular pressures to water down the faith.
Inevitably, those stereotypes don’t do justice to complex figures. John XXIII was actually a man of deeply traditional Italian Catholic piety, and John Paul II was hardly a neo-con. Recall, for instance, his opposition to both the death penalty and the US-led war in Iraq in 2003.
Nonetheless, the politically savvy Francis is aware of how these popes are seen, so the dual halos represent an invitation to left and right to come together. Had either pontiff been canonized individually, it might have come off as a victory lap for one side or the other.
Second, the combination also says something about the multiple paths to holiness.
Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla, the given names of John XXIII and John Paul II, were remarkably different personalities. Roncalli was the roly-poly, avuncular son of Italian peasants, while the swashbuckling Wojtyla was sort of a Polish John Wayne. Roncalli was a student of church history and a Vatican diplomat, while Wojtyla was a philosopher and pastor. As noted, they also have different followings.
Combining them is thus a reminder that good Catholics, up to and including popes, come in all shapes and sizes. As Jesuit Fr. James Martin puts it, the canonizations illustrate that “sanctity does not mean we have to be cookie-cutter versions of one or another saint.”
Third, the canonizations offer a reminder that sainthood, when it’s working properly, is the most democratic procedure in the Catholic church.
In theory, the sainthood process is supposed to begin with grass-roots devotion to a particular figure. In some cases that rank-and-file sentiment can be hard to discern, but not this time.
John XXIII was a global icon in his day, and he remains a beloved figure especially among Italians. A sociologist might well conclude that the Holy Trinity in Italy isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but rather God, Padre Pio, and John XXIII, because a stunning share of taxis, bars and restaurants, and private homes are festooned with images of the famed Capuchin stigmatic and Il papa buono, “Good Pope John.”
For John Paul II, the vast crowds chanting “Santo subito!”, meaning “sainthood now,” during his funeral Mass nine years ago speak for themselves. If that’s not enough, consider that one of Rome’s most prestigious theaters is currently staging a musical called “Karol Wojtyla: The True Story,” with scores of ordinary people forking over $40 a ticket to see the show.
Fourth, there are novel twists to both canonizations.
For John XXIII, it’s that Pope Francis has dispensed with the normally required second miracle. With John Paul II it’s the new land speed record he’s setting, only nine years from death to sainthood, while other candidates can languish for centuries.
Purists may grouse over those departures from tradition, but they illustrate a core truth about Catholicism: It’s good to be pope, because Francis was free to go ahead anyway.
Fifth and finally, neither new saint is without his critics.
Some traditionalists fault John XXIII for weakening the Church, noting that the progressive changes introduced by Vatican II coincided with dramatic declines in the numbers of priests and nuns and the practice of the faith in the West.
Liberals sometimes complain that John Paul II “rolled back the clock” on Vatican II’s reforming spirit. Advocates for victims of clerical sex abuse often charge that John Paul II allowed the scandals to fester, in some cases supporting clerics who turned out to be guilty and failing to discipline leaders who covered it up.
Without assessing those objections, it’s worth noting that whenever a pope is beatified or canonized, Vatican officials insist it’s not tantamount to a declaration that every policy choice during their papacy was beyond reproach. It’s rather a statement that despite their human failures, they strove to live a holy life worthy of imitation.
Pundits and activists may chew over that all they like, but the throngs who’ll be in the streets of Rome next Sunday probably won’t display much doubt that John XXIII and John Paul II both fit the bill.
Should popes even be canonized
As a footnote, some experts question the whole business of assigning halos to popes. Generally it’s not because they doubt the personal holiness of these men, but because they worry it damages the process.
First of all, Catholic theology holds that the Church never “makes” a saint. If someone is already in Heaven with God, which is what calling them a saint means, they don’t need a piece of paper from Rome certifying their status. Declaring someone a saint is really for everyone else, intended to lift that person up as a role model and a source of inspiration.
With popes, such a gesture is arguably superfluous, since their election already made them highly visible figures.
Further, the question with popes is, which ones do you canonize? Either you do it for all of them, which may cheapen the result by making it seem almost part of the standard benefits package, or you pick and choose, which risks making the process seem political.
For those reasons, some theologians have quietly suggested a moratorium on declaring popes as saints. Whatever the merits of that case, so far it doesn’t look like Francis is buying it.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.