Dual canonisation a neat masterstroke by Pope Francis

Ceremony for John XXIII and John Paul II represents a balancing act

Pilgrims pray at the grave of pope John Paul II in the St Sebastian Chapel of St Peter’s Basilica. Up to 1 million pilgrims and tourists from all over the world are expected in Rome this weekend for the historic double canonization of Pope John Paul and Pope John XXIII. Photograph: Radek Pietruszka/EPA

Pilgrims pray at the grave of pope John Paul II in the St Sebastian Chapel of St Peter’s Basilica. Up to 1 million pilgrims and tourists from all over the world are expected in Rome this weekend for the historic double canonization of Pope John Paul and Pope John XXIII. Photograph: Radek Pietruszka/EPA

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 01:00

It was certainly not planned this way but Sunday’s unprecedented canonisation of perhaps the two most influential popes of the 20th century, John XXIII and John Paul II, may well prove to be not only a moment of devout joy for millions of Catholics but also a political masterstroke for Pope Francis, the man who presides over Sunday’s ceremony. At the very least, as one Vatican insider puts it, the dual canonisation underlines Pope Francis’s ability to bear in mind “the different constituencies” that make up the 1.2 billion strong Catholic Church.

Even if terms such as liberal and conservative or left and right have only a relative value when assessing popes, it is obvious that the two popes to be made saints on Sunday do indeed represent very different “constituencies” on the Catholic landscape. Whilst both men were clearly complex figures who defy simple pigeon-holing, it is undeniable that many Catholics tend to see John XXIII as the Great Reformer of Vatican Council II and John Paul II as someone whose understandably anti-Communist mindset often appeared to slow up the pace of those same reforms.

To label John XXIII as liberal and John Paul II as conservative is clearly an over-simplification. For example, John XXIII wanted his priests to wear clerical garb at all times and not to attend secular public events. Likewise, John Paul II’s 27-year-long pontificate witnessed a series of ground-breaking moments that were anything but “conservative” – his 1986 day of prayer for peace in Assisi with Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others: his “mea culpa” during the Holy Year of 2000; his formal visits to the synagogue in Rome in 1986 and to the Umayyad Mosque in Syria in 2001; his repeated condemnation of the US-led invasions of Iraq both in 1991 and in 2003, to name but the most obvious.


Repressive figure
For all that, however, many Catholics, especially in the developed world, recall John Paul II as the Pope who “held the line” on a vast swathe of socio-sexual mores, a repressive figure opposed to doctrinal change. In contrast, John XXIII, il Papa Buono , was a seemingly avuncular figure who surprised everyone in his brief, five-year-long pontificate by calling on the church to open itself to modernity, in the process instigating the biggest set of changes seen around here, arguably for centuries.

Francis does not need to be told that a canonisation is clearly a very political moment in the life of the church. When he was elected last year, he found himself faced with a number of “fait accomplis”, issues on which there really could be no going-back even if he had wanted to. Amongst such issues was the cause for the canonisation of John Paul II.


Beatified
By the time, Francis was elected, John Paul II had already been beatified (in 2011). There was never any stopping the momentum of this “People’s Pope”, a momentum initiated with those infamous cries of “ Santo Subito ” (make him a saint) in St Peter’s Square on the day of his funeral. So, what would Francis do? Would he make a saint of a man whose pastoral approach and dogmatic rigidity at times seemed very much at odds with Francis’ own ministry. In the end, Francis came up with a neat balancing act. Of course, he would canonise John Paul II with whom he shares many concerns such as the condemnation of deregulated capitalism, for example. But he would “balance” the John Paul II sainthood with the figure of a visionary whose urge to launch the church down the road of profound renewal and change has much in common with his own “mandate” from last year’s conclave to clean up the church’s scandal besmirched act.

In the end, too, as he celebrates this worldwide HD TV spectacular, Francis will give very clear expression to his ministry of inclusion rather than exclusion. Not only will he canonise two very different popes but he will also do so in the presence of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, in an unprecedented celebration involving four different popes.

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