Canonisation of two popular popes start of healing process in church at war with itself

John XXIII and John Paul II represent both left and right factions in church

Pope John Paul II in 2005. The late pontiff is credited with a significant role in the fall of communism. Photograph: Reuters/Max Rossi

Pope John Paul II in 2005. The late pontiff is credited with a significant role in the fall of communism. Photograph: Reuters/Max Rossi


It is probable the crowds in Rome on April 27th next year will be the largest seen there since the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005.

The announcement by Pope Francis last July that both Pope John Paul and Pope John XXIII would be canonised was warmly welcomed both within and outside the Catholic Church. Yesterday, Francis said the canonisations would take place on the same day, Sunday April 27th.

Were it necessary, a visit to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome would confirm the enormous popularity of both. There, invariably, you will find people crowded before the remains of Pope John at the altar of St Jerome and of Pope John Paul in the chapel of St Sebastian.

Symbolism powerful

It is likely that this unprecedented joint canonisation of two popes next April, by Pope Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, will cement the beginnings of a healing process within an institution which has been at war with itself since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.The symbolism is powerful.

Conservatives in the church will claim that Pope John XXIII went too far in opening up the church and convening the Second Vatican Council while those on the left will say Pope John Paul II did not do nearly enough when it came to the clerical child sex abuse crisis. Both, it should be said, were good and holy men, whatever their errors. Neutral parties will be inclined to see the greatness in each.

Pope John ushered a moribund institution, locked into antipathy towards the world, to embrace that world instead, while Pope John Paul played a hugely significant role in the fall of communism and, on the world stage, became one of the most influential and respected popes in history.

It is interesting to recall that when Pope John XXIII was beatified in 2000 it was alongside the very controversial Pope Pius IX. Pope from 1846 to 1878, he witnessed the demise of the papal states and the end of the temporal power of the papacy but also convened the First Vatican Council (1869-1870).

He was the pope who locked both papal infallibility (1870) and the immaculate conception of Mary (1854) into Catholic doctrine.He also proclaimed the anti-modernist teaching of his Syllabus of Errors and centralised church authority in Rome.

It was on his watch that the Catholic Church in Ireland, as most of us would have known it, came into being.

He is remembered in non-Catholic quarters as being actively anti-Semitic, fiercely opposed to the unification of Italy and a major stumbling block to ecumenical dialogue. His beatification in 2000 was seen as a nod to the more conservative elements in the church.

Pius IX was so hated in Rome that at his funeral in 1878 crowds attempted to throw his body into the Tiber. Even in 2000 the Italian state president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, prime minister Giuliano Amato and the mayor of Rome Francesco Rutelli refused to attend his beatification ceremony, even though it also included the popular John XXIII.

That Pius IX has been quietly sidelined may of itself be significant, and not least where future church governance is concerned.