A two-by-two papal canonization

God willing, I’ll be in Rome Sunday, for the historic canonization of two popes as saints, John Paul II and John XXIII. It’s the first time that two popes have been canonized together. It’ll probably also be the first time that two popes have been present at a canonization, as Pope Francis will actually perform the canonization, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will most likely be in attendance. After all, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he was Blessed John Paul II’s right-hand man during the third-longest papacy in history (from 1978-2005), one that deservedly merited John Paul the qualifier “the Great.” Pope Benedict also, just a few years ago, beatified his rock-star predecessor. 

It should be a wild scene, as more than a million people are expected to attend the canonization in St. Peter’s Square, which doesn’t hold anything like that number. There are no tickets, I understand, so it’ll be first-come, first-served, which means most likely that people will be camping out, including probably half of Poland. Say a prayer that me and my friends, going with a pilgrimage organized by Franciscan University of Steubenville, get within eyesight of the canonization.

John Paul II’s trip to sainthood sets a modern record for shortness of time between his death and canonization, a mere nine years. Of course, even at his funeral Mass in Rome, attended by millions, there were signs proclaiming “Santo subito!” (“Saint right now!”) throughout the crowd, which testify to his reputation for holiness among the faithful  (In the 13th century, St. Anthony of Padua was canonized a year after his death, and St. Francis of Assisi two years after; but since the 16th century, when the Vatican bureaucracy with its elaborate procedures for sainthood was instituted, no one has been canonized faster than John Paul II).

Not even Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta beat that record. I remember that in 1991, I went to the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and was waiting in line (always a crazy, hectic scene) to get in, along with some Missionaries of Charity. They explained that, once the gates were opened, they would leave us, a relatively younger group, in the dust. And sure enough, the nuns sprinted to the Basilica, leaving us in the dust. Mother Teresa was beatified in record time, but John Paul II beat even that!

It was John Paul who beatified John XXIII, pope between 1958 and 1963. John XXIII most notably and surprisingly summoned the Second Vatican Council, which the young Bishop Karol Wojtyla attended from Poland, and which the young Father Joseph Ratzinger attended as a peritus (expert) theologian from Germany. Its goal was to more effectively preach the Gospel to the modern world, through aggiornamento (“updating” — opening up the windows of a sometimes musty Vatican) and ressourcement (“return to the sources” — being more faithful to the Bible and the example of the early Christians). 

John XXIII was a fat, jovial man of the people, who succeeded the lean, ascetic Pius XII. An Italian peasant, he immediately won over the world with his palpable goodness and humanity, and gave the Church a new ecumenical spirit. He emphasized what unites Christians and believers, rather than what separates us. Now, with an increasingly aggressive secularism in the West, constantly challenging and even persecuting people of faith, the wisdom of that change in emphasis seems apparent.  In many ways, Pope Francis reminds me of Blessed (soon-to-be St.) John XXIII. 

In canonizing in one ceremony the pope who summoned Vatican II along with the pope who did more than anyone else to implement its directives, the pope that the liberals tend to love together with the pope that conservatives tend to love, Pope Francis is emphasizing the unity of the Catholic Church, which is best expressed around the altar of the Eucharist and in the lives of its saints, of whom we have now two new certified examples. SS. John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us!

Anchor columnist Dwight Duncan is a professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in civil and canon law.

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