When the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints told Pope Francis that the conditions for the canonization of Pope John Paul II had been met, he asked about Pope John XXIII. His cause was not yet concluded, they replied, because the requisite second miracle had not been approved.

But Pope Francis was not prepared to allow John XXIII to be left behind. He is alleged to have told his friend Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, archbishop of Turin, that if he had been elected in the conclave of 2005, in which he ran second to Joseph Ratzinger, he might have called himself Pope John XXIV. Moreover, in his Civiltà Cattolica interview last year, he had quoted Pope John’s adoption of the motto “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little” as a model for his own style of governance.

So he took charge of the rules himself, waived the requirement for a second miracle in John XXIII’s case, and will canonize both popes together on April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday (so designated by John Paul).

The Polish church is said to dislike the pairing, fearing that it diminishes the stature of their man. That only goes to show how important it was for Francis to supply balance in the opposite direction. Otherwise the impact would have been dangerously one-sided.

These were two very different popes. John XXIII had a programme of aggiornamento, or “updating.” The Second Vatican Council he called redefined the church as a pilgrim with all humanity, and brought it out of the “long nineteenth century” when Pius IX repudiated “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” But John Paul II was seen as bringing in a degree of Restoration—an orientation quickly spotted by the British journalist and historian Paul Johnson, who wrote a book about it. “The Roman Catholic Church is a divine autocracy,” he began; he ended: “The holy, Roman, catholic, and apostolic Church...has been sick. It is now recovering its health and energy. John Paul has been its skilled and resolute physician.”

How do these two legacies relate to each other?

For one thing, both popes have in common that there was a move to recognize them as saints by acclamation immediately after their deaths, as might have happened in the early church. In the closing stages of the Second Vatican Council, some of the bishops sought this recognition for John XXIII, to seal their work before they went home.

John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, had steered the council through to a successful conclusion, but he always saw every side of every question—“my Hamlet,” Pope John called him. Ecclesiastical politics decided it. In response to the bishops’ call for John’s canonization, Pope Paul sought advice from the Vatican’s saint-making congregation. In his book Making Saints, the former religion editor of Newsweek magazine Kenneth L. Woodward recounts how he discussed Paul VI’s dilemma with a leading expert at the congregation for saints, the German Jesuit Peter Gumpel. “To put it bluntly,” the Jesuit explained, referring to the preliminary stage of beatification that precedes canonization, “if at this moment this pope were to beatify Pius and not John, there would be a certain section of opinion which would say he prefers the line of Pius to that of John. Exactly the opposite would happen if he beatified John instead of Pius.”

The upshot was a judgment of Solomon by which Pope Paul linked the cause of John XXIII with that of Pius XII, seeking to counteract the widespread opinion that the former and the council he called had superseded the latter. It is as though Good Pope John, as the world called him, carried such a high charge of ecclesiastical explosive that something had to be done to nullify it.

In a similar way, at the end of John Paul II’s funeral in Rome, placards appeared among the huge crowds that read, santo subito—“make him a saint at once.” The pressure was not unwelcome to the dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who would shortly be elected as John Paul II’s successor. In his striking oration during the Requiem Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Ratzinger envisaged the late pope “standing today at the window of the Father’s house.” They could be sure, said Ratzinger, “that he sees us and blesses us,” as John Paul had sought to do at the window of the Apostolic Palace on the last Easter Sunday of his life. 

For more than twenty-three years Ratzinger had been at John Paul’s right hand as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As Pope Benedict XVI, he had fewer scruples than Paul VI. He started the sainthood process immediately, setting aside the requirement that five years must first elapse. Such speed shows how much the brake has been eased off. Previously, it was exceptional for popes to be canonized. For centuries only three, as Woodward records in his book, had been named as saints: Celestine V, the holy Benedictine hermit without an administrative clue who at the age of eighty accepted the call from desperate cardinal electors to resolve a deadlocked conclave, only to abdicate after a mere five months (Il gran rifiuto, the great refusal, Dante called it); Pius V, who presided over the implementation of the sixteenth-century reforming Council of Trent; and Pius X (1903–14), who wanted progressives to be “beaten with fists.” Before Vatican I it was not expected that popes would be saints, for they were, rather, governors, temporal as well as spiritual. It was from the ranks of the religious orders, which had the time and the opportunity and the sponsors, that many candidates for sainthood came. But with the loss of the Papal States as the armies of the Risorgimento unified Italy, popes became quasi-martyrs as “prisoners of the Vatican” and their personal qualities came into focus.

Today there is a papal queue on what Woodward described to me as almost a sainthood assembly line, from Pius IX, who was beatified against all probability by John Paul II in 2000, together with John XXIII—another balancing act—to Pius XII to Paul VI to John Paul I. An assistant postulator for Jesuit sainthood causes, Marc Lindeijer, has recently expressed misgivings about this trend. “I don’t think it gives a good image of the Roman Church,” he warned, “if every pope canonizes his predecessor. How many saintly popes do you need? One could ask oneself what is the value for the future church of canonizing ten popes in a row?” Moreover, Lindeijer added, once the assembly line is set up and in motion, what will people say if a pope is not canonized? “Oh, he must have done something bad. Why haven’t we canonized Pius IX? What did he do wrong? When Benedict dies, if they do not immediately start a process for him, what has he done wrong?”

Especially when a pope is canonizing his predecessor, one of the virtues prized by the Catholic Church—prudence—needs to operate in overdrive. For this is power praising power. The editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Michael Walsh, likes to recall that the English historian Edward Gibbon saw in the Roman pontiffs the ghosts of the Roman emperors. Nowadays, Walsh warns, Gibbon might feel driven to reflect “that popes have adopted the ancient imperial tradition of deifying their ancestors.” The Jesuit social scientist and former editor of America Thomas J. Reese told me he had a remedy in mind. It should be made obligatory, he suggests, for any pope on assuming his office to write a letter forbidding his successor to open a cause for him.

The controversy surrounding the cause of Pius XII is an object lesson in the advisability of waiting till perspectives have cleared and judgments matured. When he died in 1958, he was regarded as the perfect pope, Pastor Angelicus. Those who met him detected the odor of sanctity. Yet today a fierce dispute is raging about his record during World War II when the Nazis unleashed their program of industrial slaughter against the Jewish people.

That is not to cast a slur on the forthcoming event when the sainthood of the two popes who have stamped their mark on the Catholic Church during the past fifty years is recognized and proclaimed. “These two were wonderful, both of them,” said Pope Francis, announcing the joint canonization.

HUMILITY HAS BEEN identified as one of the signs of sanctity in a pope. Here is a key to Pope John. On his eightieth birthday, he greeted a group from his village of Sotto il Monte who, dressed in the traditional peasant black, had arrived in Rome for the celebration. Ignoring the serried ranks of cardinals in their finery, Pope John went over to them.

“What I would really like,” he told them, “would be to go to our local restaurant with you all and eat pasta and drink wine and talk about old times. But we have to do the Lord’s will.”

While John XXIII’s family was always dear to him, John Paul II had some of the characteristics of an orphan. His mother died when he was eight, his father when he was twenty. When his elder brother, a doctor, died at the age of twenty-six of scarlet fever contracted in the hospital, in agony of mind he kept asking why. So did others. “It was God’s will,” said the young Karol Wojtyla, after the death.

He consulted many, heard few, and decided alone. A witness to his character is his admirer the Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who labored with him for four years to bring his book The Acting Person, combining phenomenology and Thomism, to the English-language press. In their study of John Paul, His Holiness, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, who interviewed Tymieniecka, report her impressions of the future pope. “People around him see the sweetest, most modest person. They never see this iron will behind it.... He’s extremely proud. This is an extremely multifaceted human being, extremely colorful. He is by no means as humble as he appears. Neither is he modest. He thinks about himself very highly, very adequately.”

Both popes brought about revolutions, John XXIII in the church, John Paul II in the world. When John called a council, he was asked why it was needed, since popes were infallible now. The story is that he went over to a window in his study and flung it open: The church needed fresh air.

His opening speech to the assembled bishops was, as so often with Pope John, couched in winningly simple terms, but with depths underneath. It took even experienced commentators some time to appreciate that he was setting the entire proceedings on a new course. Every day, he told the assembled bishops, he had to listen “to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin.... We feel we must disagree with those prophets of doom.”

Later in the speech he turned to the purpose of the council itself, which was to be pastoral, updating the application of traditional doctrine rather than repeating it. “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” By the time the conciliar bishops had finished their work, four years later, they had carried out, in accordance with Pope John’s wish, a radical updating.

John Paul II’s revolution started at once. His 1978 inaugural sermon in St. Peter’s Square electrified Eastern Europeans, who, watching it on television and hearing it on radio, could discern what it portended, and it emboldened some evangelical pastors daunted by secular culture in the West as they sought to proclaim Jesus Christ. John Paul II showed them how. “Open wide the doors for Christ!” he exhorted. “To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization, and development!

“Do not be afraid! Christ knows what is in man. He alone knows it.”

A climax was to come shortly in Poland, when for the first time their pope returned home. On the eve of Pentecost 1979, a million people crowded into central Warsaw to greet him. In Victory Square stood a cross 60 feet high, erected for the occasion. Robed for the Mass, John Paul commanded the scene, vigorous, handsome, an athlete, poet, and mystic, confident, recollected. He said nothing directly against Communist dogma in his sermon. He did not need to. “Come down, Holy Spirit!” he prayed. “Come down, renew the face of the earth—the face of this earth!” The Polish word for earth means also “land.” Everyone understood.

He was the liberator, inspirer of a revolution that unfolded on that day without a window being broken. The Catholics took charge of everything to do with the celebration, reducing the government apparatchiks to bystanders watching the proceedings from their offices on television. He showed them as they were: authorities without any more substance than cardboard cutouts.

His many fans called him John Paul the Great. Throughout his papacy, even as Parkinson’s disease took an increasing toll, he continued to bestride the world like a colossus. As late as 2003 he was a force to contend with as he made clear his outright opposition to George W. Bush’s Iraq war.

His commitment to John XXIII’s great achievement, the council, in which he had participated as the archbishop of Krakow, always had a certain ambivalence. At the time, the Polish bishops were disconcerted to find open debate and dispute being engaged in on the floor of St. Peter’s, reported prominently in the press—just what they avoided in Poland, where the church had to show itself to be unified against the Communist rulers. As the council made its way toward what was to be hailed as a jewel in its crown, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, two Polish groups submitted alternative draft texts. One group was apparently led by Archbishop Wojtyla. But these drafts were very far away from the approach the bishops finally agreed on, and were set aside. The Wojtyla group thought the emerging Gaudium et Spes document was too optimistic and reflected too much the Western standpoint of its protagonists. In the end the constitution was accepted with widespread support and the Polish bishops went along with it.

As pope, John Paul repeated that the Second Vatican Council was a sure compass for the future and the reference point for all his pastoral activity. And he was indeed a product of the council. Without Gaudium et Spes and associated conciliar decrees, he could not have made justice and peace, religious freedom and freedom of conscience the platform of his preaching to the world during his visits to so many countries in five continents. Nor without the council could he have entered the synagogue in Rome or the mosque in Damascus. He could not have called together representatives of the world’s religions to pray for peace in Assisi. Nor could he have launched his project of a new Christian humanism.

On the other hand, so dominant a pope was bound to hollow out the council’s key structural reform, collegiality—that the church was governed by the college of bishops, with and under the pope, not by pope and Roman Curia. The bishops envisaged nothing less than the replacing of the papal absolute monarchy stretching back to the eleventh century by a model nearer to the biblical image of Peter and the Eleven. But John Paul shored up the opinions of those who saw in centralization the Catholic Church’s greatest strength, and who believed that without it, he could not have shaken the Soviet Union in the way he did.

Accordingly, under John Paul, collegiality meant “the shared unanimous position” of the bishops round their leader, as he put it in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. The council had failed to supply any institutional underpinning for the doctrine, which could not flourish in a church dominated by the man in white. His face was the face of the church and television had eyes only for him. So long as John Paul was pope, the bishops had only walk-on parts. “They treat us like altar boys here,” said the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, during a stay in Rome.

By contrast, John trusted the bishops. He watched the council on closed-circuit television. “Now they are beginning to understand,” he remarked at one point. He intervened hardly at all in the conciliar proceedings, though decisively. Where John Paul was respected and admired with something like awe, Pope John was loved. His goodness and wisdom took the world by storm. Anyone could see in him the fisherman, Peter, throwing out his nets.

His path to the papacy was against the odds. Whereas Karol Wojtyla’s qualities brought him steady recognition—he became Poland’s youngest bishop in 1958 at the age of thirty-eight—Angelo Roncalli had to bear slights. He knew that the Vatican did not rate him highly. As diplomatic representative of the Holy See, he was relegated to Bulgaria and Turkey. His faithful aide, Loris Capovilla, now created a cardinal by Pope Francis, draws attention to an entry in Roncalli’s spiritual diary for 1926. He had been a bishop for twenty months. “As was easily foreseeable,” the future pope wrote, episcopal office “has brought me much worry and anxiety. But it is odd that the worry was not caused by the Bulgarians, for whom I am here, but by the church’s central administration. I have been insulted and humiliated in a way that I didn’t expect, and that has hurt me deeply. Lord, you know everything!”

His faith and devotion to his task never wavered, however, and an unexpected break brought him back to Europe. In Paris in 1944, after the German occupiers had been driven out, General de Gaulle wanted a new nuncio to replace Valerio Valeri, whom he rejected as having been too close to Pétain’s collaborationist regime. None of the Vatican’s nominations prospered. So Roncalli was chosen. Summoned to Rome on his way to Paris, he expressed his surprise. “I don’t understand it,” he said to the secretary of state, Domenico Tardini. Nor do I, agreed Tardini.

He was elected pope as a caretaker, though no one had any idea that he would take his care of the church as far as he did. Loris Capovilla treasures some words spoken to him by Pope John in his last days. “We worked together,” John recalled gratefully, “and we suffered together. We served and often had to swallow bitter medicine—but that didn’t stop us. We refused to waste our time picking up the stones that had been hurled at us in order to throw them back. We were patient, forgave people and we loved.”

Nor did the cardinals who elected Pope John Paul II foresee the future. They wanted a strong man, and in that they succeeded, but as to the rest, that is another matter. As John Paul himself once confided to journalists in a press conference held on the papal plane, “I don’t think the eminent cardinals knew what sort of personality I am, and therefore what kind of papacy they were getting.”

Saints can be hard to live with, because they do not compromise. John Paul could be harsh. Presiding over meetings of bishops, his arms resting on the arms of his chair, his knuckles would whiten with tension when he disagreed with what was being said. And after the fall of the Communist empire, he became angry with the Western democracies, opposing the pluralism that their societies were trying to build. What was this freedom that Europeans were touting, he asked on his fourth Polish visit in 1991. “Freedom to abort unborn children?” Poland was being urged to “enter Europe” but “we helped to create Europe in the first place.” He was shouting. His 1993 encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor, asserting absolute values and tight ethical norms, made a big impact, though some moral theologians despaired.

Certainly, a lingering dark cloud over John Paul II’s papacy is the inadequacy of his reaction to the horrific revelations of clerical sexual abuse that erupted on his watch. He could not get his mind round them. For one who lived out his priesthood with such integrity and heroism, it was hardly thinkable that some others did not, or that young people could be at risk where they should have been most safe. Probably also his experience in Poland, where crises of this sort would have been taken as calculated provocations by the authorities, exerted background influence on him.

If the function of Devil’s Advocate still existed—it was abolished by John Paul II in 1983 as part of a revision of the canonization procedure—this would be the area on which he would be most likely to concentrate. To the very end John Paul supported Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican-born founder of the Legionaries of Christ, despite all the evidence again him. At the height of the press furor over abuse in the United States, in 2002, he was slow to act. It was three months before he called the American cardinals to Rome. On Holy Thursday that year, in his customary letter to priests, he referred to “the mystery of iniquity” at work in the world, a phrase from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians that speaks of “the wicked one” whom Jesus will slay with the breath of his mouth at the end of time. But that is not an explanation, let alone a remedy.

DRAMA ATTENDED THE deaths of both popes. In 2005 it became clear that John Paul’s long fight against Parkinson’s disease could not be prolonged much further. Some speculated about resignation, as his successor was to do and as canon law allows, but he ruled it out. Christ did not come down from his cross, he said. He went to the hospital, came back; went again to the hospital, where a tracheotomy was performed, came back. The operation on his throat made it impossible for him to speak, even when he tried to say words of blessing from his window on Easter Sunday to the crowds below. As he neared his death after twenty-six years in the chair of Peter, the world caught its breath. A superstar was leaving them.

In Britain I wondered if my country could any longer be fairly described as Anglican and Protestant, for, day after day, it was John Paul’s fatally deteriorating health that topped the news agendas of broadcast and print media alike. The funeral in Rome was viewed by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, and attended by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and two hundred heads of state and other dignitaries, including the archbishop of Canterbury, who had let it be known that if he had to choose, he would go to Rome rather than officiate at the wedding of the Prince of Wales. The prince postponed his nuptials and went too.

Where John Paul’s papacy was one of the longest in history, John had only four and a half years in St. Peter’s chair. “I know,” he told the Belgian Primate, Leo Joseph Suenens, during a conversation at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, “what my personal part in the preparation of the council will be.... It will be suffering.”

In his last days, as he succumbed to stomach cancer, he drew attention to the ivory crucifix opposite his bed. “Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate,” he said. “They say that Christ died for all, for all…. Souls! Souls! Ut unum sint! Ut unum sint!”—“That they may all be one,” the words of Jesus after the Last Supper. At length his doctor told him the end was near. “I am ready,” he replied. He had always said that his bags were packed and he could go at any time.

Now both popes are to be raised to the universal calendar of saints. But they leave behind serious division in the church. Those who favor change are in contention with those who favor continuity, and who sometimes speak as though the church had never changed at all.

Upheaval is the rule rather than the exception when church councils are called, and in the wake of Vatican II there has been plenty of it. In a trenchant footnote in his magisterial An Introduction to the New Testament, the biblical exegete Raymond Brown deplored the Catholic civil war. Before the council, he observed, Catholics in their prayers “rarely mentioned non-Christians, or even non-Catholics, who suffered from disasters or political persecution; after the council they have done so with great earnestness.” On the other hand, he went on, “before that council they rarely if ever attacked fellow Roman Catholics publicly; afterwards they have done so both vociferously and publicly, as they have fought over liberal and conservative issues.” Then Brown posed a pointed question. “Can they be persuasive in their concern for outsiders if they virtually hate one another?”

Pope Francis has set himself to change this climate. If wrongly received, the canonizations could make it worse. Can Francis use the occasion, instead, to build a bridge between the two wings? If so, with Pope-emeritus Benedict probably in attendance, he needs to do a few miracles of his own. Every word that he will say on April 27, when vast crowds are expected in Rome, will count.

Funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

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Published in the April 11, 2014 issue: View Contents
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