A Double-Barreled Canonization

Today Pope Francis declares Popes John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints, the first double papal canonization in Church history. To give Dish readers added context about the event, Byliner has unlocked The Secret World of Saints by Bill Donahue (not the insufferable one from the Catholic League). It’s an in-depth look at the canonization process, which John Paul II streamlined:

When he became pope in 1978, John Paul II was keenly aware that the saint-making process was malleable. A playwright in his early days, he also recognized the theater inherent in sainthood, and he saw that, by minting new saints, he could endear the Church to its growing flock in Africa, Asia, and South America. And so, in 1983, he simply changed the rules. He did away with the devil’s advocate—suddenly there was no longer an official naysayer hovering over each sainthood cause. He also reduced the number of miracles needed for sainthood. For centuries, four miracles had been required of non-martyrs. John Paul cut that number to two.

In his twenty-six-year papacy, John Paul canonized 482 people—more than had been named during the preceding five centuries. He beseeched local dioceses to recommend saintly candidates so that Catholics everywhere might feel that they live amid exemplars of holiness. He specialized in mass canonizations (among them, the 120 Martyr Saints of China, canonized in one fell swoop in 2000) and in sanctifying people of color—for instance, Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese-born slave.

Both of these popes also benefited from exceptions to the established path to sainthood, especially John Paul II, whose canonization only nine years after his death sets a modern record:

John Paul’s record sprint to sainthood started during his 2005 funeral Mass, when chants of “Santo Subito” or “Sainthood Now” erupted from the crowd. Bowing to the calls, Pope Benedict XVI waived the typical five-year waiting period before a saintly investigation can begin and allowed the process to start just weeks after his death.

The rest of the process followed the rules: John Paul was beatified in 2011 after the Vatican certified that a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease was miraculously healed after she prayed to him. A Costa Rican woman whose inoperable brain aneurism purportedly disappeared after she prayed to John Paul was the second miracle needed for canonization. …

John XXIII was beatified in 2000 after the Vatican certified that the healing of an Italian nun suffering from a gastric hemorrhage was miraculous. Pope Francis, very much a spiritual son of John, waived the Vatican rule requiring a second miracle so that John could be canonized alongside John Paul.

When asked what these two popes were known for, Rachel Zoll explains their divergent reputations – but also notices the shrewd politics behind Pope Francis canonizing them together, which she describes as “balancing the ticket”:

One is Pope John XXIII who served from 1958 to 1963 and he’s known for his modernizing reforms of the church, bringing it out into the modern world. And the other is Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005 when he died. And he’s known for, obviously a lot of things, but he also helped uphold orthodoxy and doctrine, and was seen in a way as putting some control around, or course corrections around, the reforms that John Paul XXIII had put in place.

There’s a left-right divide in the church and it is very wide. And by bringing these two men together for canonization at the same time, he’s saying a lot of different things. He’s saying one isn’t–there not at odds with each other, that they’re more on a continuum of how they led the church and also, that there’s room for everybody. This is a big message of his pontificate, that he wants all people of different views to be welcome in the church.

George Weigel makes a similar observation, but in the context of the Second Vatican Council, which began at John XXIII’s prompting:

Pope Francis’s bold decisions to canonize Blessed John XXIII without the normal post-beatification miracle, and to link Good Pope John’s canonization ceremony to that of Blessed John Paul II, just may help reorient Catholic thinking about modern Catholic history. For what Francis is suggesting, I think, is that John XXIII and John Paul II are the twin bookends of the Second Vatican Council—and thus should be canonized together.

Zooming out, Michael Lipka and Tim Townsend remind us that a pope becoming a saint is “a rarity in modern times”:

Roughly 30% of all popes are saints. Starting with St. Peter, traditionally regarded as the first leader of the church after Christ’s death, 52 of the first 55 popes became saints during Catholicism’s first 500 years. In the last 1,000 years, just seven popes have been made saints, including the two being canonized on Sunday.

You can purchase The Secret World of Saints as a Kindle Single here.