A Mexican woman holds a Pope John Paul drawing in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Saturday. (AP)
Vatican City, April 26: Pope John XXIII was the rotund Italian pontiff with a common touch, who told jokes, embraced the poor and became beloved as “the Good Pope”. To many liberal Catholics, he is still revered for the Second Vatican Council, the landmark event of the 1960s that sought to move the Roman Catholic Church into the modern age.
Pope John Paul II was the charismatic Polish pontiff who liked to sneak away from the Vatican to ski and who retooled the papacy in a new era of globalised media. His vision of a more rigid Catholicism made him a revered figure among many conservative Catholics suspicious of the liberalising spirit introduced by John XXIII.
“The man who took the lid off and the man who tried to put it back on,” said Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge.
Now a new pope, Francis, is making his most public attempt to sew together the two men’s different legacies as he pushes his own vision of a church under a big tent.
Francis will preside tomorrow over a first-of-its-kind joint canonisation of the former popes, both iconic figures in the 20th-century church who will be elevated to sainthood during a Mass at St Peter’s Square.
For Francis, who has spent the first year of his papacy straddling the divisions within the church, this twinning allows him to deftly avoid elevating one man over the other.
It also serves his broader agenda of de-emphasising ideological battles as he tries to renew excitement among the faithful and reverse a steady decline in church attendance.
“The Catholic Church is big enough to encompass the devotees of John XXIII and John Paul II,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Centre for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. “That is the message he is sending.”
Unquestionably, the pairing has transformed the Mass into a global media event. Huge crowds are pouring into Rome, with estimates that hundreds of thousands of people — possibly more than two million — will fill St Peter’s Square or watch the ceremony on more than a dozen large screens erected in piazzas across Rome. Portraits of both former popes have been draped on St Peter’s Basilica, and souvenir shops are selling canonisation trinkets.
“We love both popes,” said Antonio Rossi, 31, a teacher from Naples who walked with his girlfriend around the square yesterday. “They are two figures who left a great mark on the Catholic Church. What is important is that they both become saints because that is how I perceive them in my life.”
Vatican officials have played down the political subtext of the ceremony, arguing that reducing the two former popes to a Left-Right political shorthand is inaccurate and cheapens what for many Catholics is a joyous and deeply spiritual moment. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, who is working with the Vatican press office for the ceremony, disagreed with those who see the ceremony as a calculated gesture of reconciliation.
“Some would say that, but I wouldn’t go that far,” Father Rosica said. “We don’t use something like this to do that.”
Without question, though, the event has stirred considerable debate among many Catholics, about the process of canonising saints and about the legacies of the two former popes, especially John Paul. He is regarded as a defining figure of the 20th century, revered for his fight against Communism in eastern Europe and admired by many for how he endured suffering during his long, public illness before his death in 2005.
But posthumously, criticism of his papacy has sharpened, for how his retrenchment of church power to the Vatican ultimately led to scandals, and for his failure to confront the clerical sexual abuse scandal, even as evidence mounted of a widespread crisis.
Some critics argue that his canonisation has been wrongly fast-tracked or should not happen at all. Advocates for sexual abuse victims have come to Rome to protest that he is unworthy of sainthood.
At a Vatican news conference yesterday, John Paul’s former spokesman, JoaquíNavarro-Valls, defended the former pope’s record on the response to the sexual abuse scandals and argued that the “purity of his thought” had made it difficult for the pontiff to accept that priests could abuse children.
He also said John Paul had taken steps to address the crisis, even as critics have called them grossly inadequate. Even some who are critical of John Paul’s record on the sexual abuse crisis say it does not negate his worthiness for canonisation, since sainthood is not conferred as a statement of perfection in life but rather for holiness.
And his selection is certainly popular among many Catholics, for whom John Paul is the man who spread the faith across the world as he visited more than 120 countries during a 27-year papacy.
“John Paul II is the pope I relate to,” said Gabriel Marcos, 29, a business student in Paris who came to Rome with a group of French Catholics.
More than any pope, John Paul recognised the emotional and symbolic value of conferring sainthoods as he sought to spread Catholicism around the world, experts say. He canonised 482 saints. To do this, he streamlined the canonisation process, reducing to five years the waiting period after a person’s death before the canonisation process can be initiated.