Popes, politics and sainthood the backdrop to improved relations between Vatican and Ireland


The moving canonisation on Sunday of arguably the two towering yet deeply contrasting figures of 20th century Catholicism, John XXIII and John Paul II, expressed in a most striking way the unifying ministry of Pope Francis.

In a ceremony in which, for first time, two popes were canonised simultaneously, the pope, who has captivated millions with his humility and openness in the year since his elevation, sent a message to 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide that the broad church has a welcome place for what both men represented. The inclusion of John, a message that the record-speed canonisation of John Paul was not to be seen as a sign of any special embrace of the latter’s perhaps more reactionary brand of Catholicism.

Their joint canonisation was, however, also an important expression of synthesis, a statement that Francis sees in both men’s differing roles a fundamental unity of purpose and shared values, entirely reconcilable visions of the church and its mission. And, particularly in their emphasis on the family which will be the shared theme of two crucial synods coming next year and in 2016 and which the pope is already beginning to prepare for.

“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” he told the crowds in his homily. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful.” But it was as much a message about the church and its evolving but still hugely important place in the world as about the two popes.

Some 3,000 Irish pilgrims joined the 19 heads of state, 25 heads of government, 93 government delegations, 100 cardinals, 750 bishops, 10,000 security officials and 800,000 pilgrims – a political as well as a religious event.

Appropriately, an occasion for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to express the healing of relations with the Vatican in announcing the welcome return of an Irish ambassador. The embassy to the Holy See had been closed for purely economic reasons, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore had told us with a form of diplomatic, secular “mental reservation” that will be all too familiar to their graces. Now, however, there exists a “closer and healthier relationship between church and state,” Mr Kenny said. “We’ve had all of the reports in Ireland. We have a situation now where the Church wants to deal with the scandals of the past in an upfront and open way.” And the embassy can reopen.

Times are changing, and in no small measure thanks to a new kind of pope, a message that was also underlined by the quiet lifting by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the sanctions on silenced priest Fr Seán Fagan. Others, it is to be hoped, will also soon be able to speak freely.