John Paul II and John XXIII: Rush to Sainthood?

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.

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).

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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.”

“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.

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.”


‘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.”

Photo: Pope John Paul hugs a Mexican youngster during a visit to Cuilapam, while attending the CELAM III meetings in 1978.

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Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
What a marvelous and angelic coincidence of events, this Divine Mercy Sunday, when the Good and the Great Popes of our lives are formerly recognized as being in heaven. Of course, the witness of miracles is the witness of the Holy Spirit and it is an excessive quibble to demand more than one for Pope St. John. Managerial excellence or perfection is certainly not a criterion, or St. Francis might still be waiting, along with many others. But, when fifty or a hundred years pass, I bet the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul the Great will be still marveled at by those steeped in the history of the Church. While the Good Pope St. John inaugurated VCII, Pope St. John Paul the Great played a key role in its documents and guided its interpretation, a pivotal role in the fall of communism, the universal Catechism, the revised Canon Law, his Theology of the Body, so many travels, so many writings, so many speeches, so many saints, the third longest pontificate and a whole generation of Cardinals. Shot by a man he forgave and saved by Our Lady of Fatima, survivor of Communism and Nazism, robust athlete, poet and playwright. Holy. What a giant of history! Dear Holy Popes, as you now abide in a house where death cannot enter any more, where the Face of Truth and Love watches over you, please pray for us that all Christians will come together - ut unum sint - into your Holy Catholic Church. As to the fastest canonization, I think it was Dismas (canonized by Jesus, through an even more extra-ordinary process "today, you will be with me in paradise."). And, more regularly, St. Peter of Verona was canonized a year after his death in 1253
Vince Killoran
3 years 7 months ago
Was it rushed? Yes. Especially for JPII. Given the still unfolding story of the many layers of the sexual abuse scandal--some of it reaching very high up the chain of command--it was imprudent to confer sainthood.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 7 months ago
The good news is that a liberal and a conservative pope are joined together. Other than that this is basically a political decision by Francis to alleviated tensions among cultural warriors. It were better to not have the ceremony. Better still to stop the publicity stunt of canonizing people in the church. Some very questionable people have been canonized over the centuries. And if truth be told the two giants of the East and west, Athanasius and Augustine lead the pack. Both were extremely ambitious men who sought power and used it to hurt other Christians. Don't look at the words. Look at the facts. In an imperfect world, it seems, Francis had no choice. It is time for liberals and conservatives to stop touting their theories and instead showing how to live the Sermon on the Mount. In a church which has presided over two World Wars in our time, it is time, for all to see how we use our faith as propaganda tools. Rather than dsicipleship it demands. Francis has made a good start by centering on the core of the gospel. It was always there, but conveniently skirted as Cardinals, bishops and popes chose power and glory over metanoia. Not to mention wealthy lay patrons who buy their slots as knights money makers. It is not a day to rejoice. But a time for a call to repentance. A time to put Jesus over his servants who have become empire builders.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
I agree, Bill. With JP2 already on the fast-track to sainthood, Francis had no choice but to let it go. The best he could do to "balance" or ease the obvious cultural tension was to add John XXIII to the agenda. I don't know what to make of this Sainthood stuff. All of us are saints and sinners, and those who guide and show me a way are not necessarily helpful to others. It was during the years of the JP2 papacy that I felt most disconnected from mainstream Catholicism. The one exemplary thing about JP2 was the way that he forgave the man who shot him. I will continue to read about him and hope to find more that might help me to understand his "sainthood". I just returned from Rome and the big billboard size pictures of JP2 and J23 are plastered on the walls along side the local politicians running for office. I cringe to think of the extravaganza and pomp that will accompany these canonizations and am glad I got out of town before it begins.
Michael Barberi
3 years 7 months ago
Beth, Good comments. I believe that all who enter heaven are saints. We are a Fallen and Redeemed People and sin is a fact of life for all of us in this existence. However, we have the certainty of the love and saving grace expressed and manifested in the Cross of Jesus and in His Resurrection. JP II was a holy man who believed in what he taught. He was not perfect by a long shot and not free from misinformation and error but did some great things. As Pope Francis said on a different subject "Who am I to Judge? Therefore, I will leave the issue of sainthood up to God, and not draw any further conclusions. Nevertheless, I am partial to Pope John XXIII. Upon my graduation from Catholic elementary school in 1960, I received rosary beads blessed by John XXIII. I still have them today and pray the rosary often.
Roberto Blum
3 years 7 months ago
While John XXIII's canonization lacked the 2nd required miracle, John Paul's was not only irregularly rushed but highly imprudent. JPII's complicity -- either by commission or by omission -- with Marcial Maciel and several hundreds other pedophile priests taint forever his role as a saint and a model for anyone who assumes leadership and responsibility. Francis will have to answer himself for JPII scandalous canonization. I still pray that Francis will hear his own conscience and stop this travesty.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
What small-mindedness to complain about this. As far as I know, sanctity is the only criterion for saintliness and all the evidence I have from public sources indicates that both popes were deeply holy men, especially Pope John Paul II - in his personal life of prayer and devotion (I agree with Michael below on this) and personal example. His resistance to Nazism and Communism, his forgiveness of his would-be assassin and the Fatima connection were awe-inspiring, but his personal holiness was self-evident even to his political opponents. I do not know what actual relationship Pope John Paul II had with the terrible Maciel but I am confident he didn't know the truth of Maciel's duplicity. Maciel fooled an awful lot of people for a very long time and they weren't all in cahoots with him. And I do not believe in guilt by association. It seems some people view everything through the sex abuse lens today, possibly to hide their own sexual sins which they deem more forgivable. They forget that the genocidal and murderous communist and nazi regimes, and even the abortionist regimes are far greater injustices by almost any measure than any failure of policing pedophile priests. In any case, the Holy Spirit has spoken through the miracles, unless some are claiming that they have investigated those miracles and found them false. I bet the real reason for the comments below is a political/theological one (too conservative for their tastes), but doesn't everyone below hope they will be a saint some day - or do they prefer to remain out of heaven as long as they can hope to keep their political or theological opponents out?
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
Holiness is a quality that I find evident in many people in my own life. My 90 year old mother in law is very holy. She will never be elevated to official "sainthood" because her circle is small and personal. She does not live on a world stage. Her politics and theological interpretation is almost 180 degrees different from my own, but even I can see her personal holiness, and it doesn't come in the form of religious devotion. Rather it is kindness, graciousness in sickness and aging, never judging or speaking ill of others, and radical honesty. She hides behind nothing; removes all masks, is who she is without apology or embarrassment.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Beth - I too believe that many people I have met in my personal life and some family relatives were very holy and I have confidence they are in heaven. As regards those on the world stage or even those known for their sanctity, I think we often think we know them when we only know their public image. The Church has a rather rigorous process for determining sainthood that includes miracles, so my understanding with that is that the Holy Spirit endorses certain people to be examples for us all.
Roberto Blum
3 years 7 months ago
Holiness is not just a life of prayer or interior life. As mentioned, JPII's resistance to nazism and communism are exemplary but he was also the leader and servant of a billion catholics who looked up to him for example. Suggesting that the injustice and harm done to thousands of children by pedophile priests is not worth taking into account is a travesty only understood by his conservative followers. I would like to remind that responsibility can never be delegated and thus JPII is the ultimate responsible individual for his lack of action against those pedophiles.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Roberto - Don't you know that sinful culpability requires knowledge of the wrong and involvement of the will? Maybe, you think JP II knew that children were being hurt and willfully and knowingly cooperated in that evil. I have not seen any evidence of that kind of thing but the opposite. But maybe you think you have sufficient evidence to judge him? Or worse, maybe you dare to ignore Jesus's warning: "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Maybe, you think the two miracles didn't happen and the Holy Spirit is being mocked by Pope Francis? the investigation into the life of Pope JP II has lasted several years and Pope Francis is responsible for the decision to go ahead with the canonization. You have to believe in a lot of things to get to where you feel good about judging Pope JP II. Keep in mind that even the bishops who moved priests around may have been foolish, weak and even negligent, but they would be culpable of sin only if they knowingly and willfully cooperated in the evil. Same for the psychologists who said the priests were cured, etc. Same for the lawyers involved on all sides. Same for all the proponents of a relaxation of sexual mores, especially relating to same sex abuse. Once you set yourself up as judge, be prepared to look your own life in the mirror.
Vince Killoran
3 years 7 months ago
Calling those with whom you disagree "small minded" and then chalking up their views as "a political/theological one (too conservative for their tastes)"?! I thought the new AMERICA guideline put in place last year didn't allow for these kinds of comments.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Vince - I hope you are a saint someday, too. Your politics are irrelevant to that- just personal sanctity. In any case, every saint has a past and every sinner a future.
Michael Barberi
3 years 7 months ago
Tim, It would be hard to believe, and unreasonable to assume, that JP II did not know about the substantial evidence about Maciel and was ignorant of the gravity of his actions. Cardinal Ratzinger collected this information over a period of years. This was only done after receiving substantial complaints, and evidence, about his horrific and immoral actions as well as the loud cries to bring Maciel to justice. Only after JP II died, and Ratzinger became pope was anything done about Maciel. At that time, Maciel was in ill health and all he was asked to do was to retire and serve his end days in some type of retreat home. Unfortunately, this case is significant and it taints the legacy of JP II. I do not judge JP II's sainthood, but leave this issue in God's hands.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Michael - you said JP II was a holy man who believed what he thought. I agree with that. I also believe that he was not perfect, as none of us are. He also said "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." Maciel is a most extra-ordinary case of a very long double-life of both heterosexual and homosexual abuse and even a secret wife and multiple children. He was only accused in public when he was 77! How could he fool so many people? His cover that was so diametrically opposite his real life had something to do with it (I think of the Sandusky case at Penn State)? I think the public evidence indicates Pope Benedict XVI (another probable saint, to the chagrin of many who disagree(d) with him) did take on Maciel, although he could have been much harsher, I suppose (the downside of mercy for an 85 year old, I guess). But, my read is that BVXI would know the mind of JP II much better than us, as well as the timing the events surrounding came to light. And, he strongly supports the canonization (he beatified him). He is the best witness I have, excepting the miracles. But, Pope Francis should also know a lot more about this than I. So, I think their combined witness trumps us bloggers.
Michael Barberi
3 years 7 months ago
Tim, My point was that most Catholics believe that the Maciel case will taint JP II's legacy based on the facts as reported. It is not an unreasonable conclusion and just because apologists argue differently does not trump the judgment of Catholics on this matter. The hierarchy lost the confidence of most Catholics as a result of the sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up. This trend was already in play for some time. I will not debate this issue because it has already been debated to death. As for JP II's canonization as a saint, I already made myself clear….I will leave that decision in God's hands.
Roberto Blum
3 years 7 months ago
Tim, canonization is an official recognition of an individual's life as a model of christian life, and JPII's life has a very black mark in his attitude and lack of concern and action regarding the harm done to thousands of children by pedophile priests. He was elected to lead and govern Christ's church and he failed in this miserably. How can he be officially recognized as a model for others?
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Roberto - In one of your comments in another string you declared "JPII is no saint." so it does appear you are making a judgment about his soul, not only the prudence on his canonization. You are making a judgment about another person's state of grace at the time of their death. So, while I can see the prudence question as at least something that could be discussed, I think your first statement tells me a lot more about your willingness to judge another's soul than about JP II state of grace at his death. I think that is actually very dangerous, spiritually speaking. And then there are the miracles. The Sister with Parkinson's and the woman with a brain aneurysm. What can one who is certain JPII is not a saint make of these events? Shouldn't that give one pause in making a rash and uncharitable judgment? It reminds me of the Gospel account (John 9) of the man born blind. The Pharisees were so sure Jesus was a sinner because He healed the man on the Sabbath, and they exclaimed “We know this man is a sinner.” It seems to me that some Catholics have been consumed by the sex abuse issue, where everything is seen by that lens and all other vices or virtues, all other holiness or sinfulness do not count as worthy of consideration. Repentance and forgiveness is not to be considered for those who might be culpable of actually sinning in their governance (such as Cardinal Law) and every bishop is considered guilty until proven innocent. Only shame and retribution will do. Whatever this is, it is not Christianity. My understanding of Catholicism is that even the pedophiles could become saints. Even judgmental bloggers could become saints.
Roberto Blum
3 years 7 months ago
Tim, who can really judge miracles? Human knowledge is always provisional and when "experts" -- medical or otherwise -- declare that there is no explanation for a particular event we should always regard that explanation as provisional. Could it be possible that sometime in the near or far future those miraculous cures you mention -- the Parkinson or the brain aneurysm cases -- would be readily explained. Then what? Sustaining sainthood and canonization on these bases is highly dangerous. A more solid base to judge an individual's life is to make an objective balance of the individual's actions and omissions, which is precisely what the Church does when presenting someone as a model of christian life. It is on considering JPII actions and omissions that I cannot consider him a saint. I cannot judge his "soul" which of course I have never seen.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Roberto - it is harder to judge a person's soul than to judge miracles. And it is the soul (the person) that is being canonized. It is reasonable to judge actions but more dangerous to judge intentions, and even worse to judge one's state at the end of their life. I think your only information is from the public domain, and is full of speculation and false certainty about not only events but also intentions, so I suggest you listen also to those who knew JPII personally, or intimately.

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