The Canonisations of John XXIII and John Paul II

by Dr Rebecca Rist

On Sunday, the 27th of April 2014 John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005) were both canonised, or declared saints, by the Catholic Church – the first ever ‘double canonisation’.

They will be following a long tradition of sainthood among former popes. Papal expert Rebecca Rist explores the process and the parallels from history.

How are saints chosen?

In the ancient world and the first days of the Church saints were often martyrs for the Christian faith, but increasingly others who had not died for the Faith but lived exemplary lives, began to be venerated publicly. In the medieval period, popes were increasingly asked to intervene in canonisations in order to ensure a more authoritative and centralised decision. Then in the seventeenth century, the papacy put in place stringent rules to govern canonisation processes. In the twentieth century – in 1983 – John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Divinus perfectionis magister, reformed and simplified these processes.

Today the person put forward for sainthood has to pass through various stages: ‘Servant of God’, ‘Venerable / Heroic in Virtue’ and ‘Blessed’ before arriving at the status of ‘Saint’. One miracle is needed for the status of ‘Blessed’ – unless the person is a martyr in which case a miracle is not deemed necessary – and two for sainthood.

Popes who become saints

Throughout history a number of popes have been canonised – either by popular acclaim or formally – including the famous Gregory VII (Hildebrand) (1073-1085), who went so far as to depose the German emperor Henry IV for refusing to co-operate in separating the German Church from the German Empire during the Investiture Contest of the eleventh century. Yet there is controversy over the canonisations of both John XXIII and John Paul II by critics who claim that they have been ‘fast-tracked’ and that canonisations are becoming too common.

John Paul II himself canonized an unprecedented number of saints during his time in office. In the early Church people were often declared saints by popular acclaim. In very recent years there has been a return to this mentality with crowds chanting ‘Santo subito!’ (‘Sainthood now!’) on the death of John Paul II. For some Catholics it may seem that a second miracle is superfluous – one well-attested miracle should make the point sufficiently. It may also be because, living in a more sceptical age when many people, particularly in the Western World, don’t believe in miracles – or think that one day they may be able to be explained by science – popes increasingly no longer regard them as the overriding and deciding factor in canonisation processes.

Why are John XXIII and John Paul II being made saints?

As the first ‘double canonisation’ the canonisations on 27th April are expected to attract huge numbers of pilgrims to Rome, not least because the Church hopes that the choices of John XXIII and John Paul II for sainthood will unite both conservative and reformists groups within Catholicism, and because we have the unprecedented instanced of one would-be-saint supporting the eventual canonisation process of another: John Paul II himself beatified John XXIII. Francis I (2013- ) has subsequently declared that there is no need for a second miracle for John XXIII.

In the case of John XXIII, Francis I has deemed that his calling of Vatican II (1962-1965), the great reforming council of the 1960s, means that the one miracle attributed to him – the healing of an Italian nun who was dying from complications after stomach surgery – is sufficient. In the case of John Paul II, although he has the requisite two miracles, including the healing of a Costa Rican woman on the date of his beatification of a terminal brain aneurism, his pontificate is still very recent. The cause for his canonisation has, however, had the strong support of Benedict XVI (2005-2013) – formerly as Cardinal Ratzinger his right hand man in the Vatican and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – once the papal Inquisition.

Who was John XXIII?

Before being elected pope, John XXIII, a genial, simple man from a humble Italian peasant background had held a number of bureaucratic posts in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and France, and then became Patriarch of Venice. Appointed on the death of Pius XII (1939-1958) he was expected to be no more than a stop-gap pope who would not rock the boat. It was therefore a great surprise when he called for Vatican II. This ‘aggiornamento’ – literally ‘a bringing up to date’- of the Church by John XXIII was welcomed by many Catholics as a breath of fresh air and long overdue, but in the eyes of some Conservatives the ‘revolutionary dynamics’ of the council subsequently spiralled out of control. Yet it was not just John XXIII’s call for Vatican II which was revolutionary, but also encyclicals such as ‘Mater et magistra’ and ‘Pacem in terris’ which welcomed the advent of the caring state, insisted wealthy nations should help poorer ones, called for progressive improvement of the conditions for working people, and signalled an end to the Vatican’s suspicion of Modernism which had existed since the pontificate of Pius X (1903-1914).

John Paul II

Following John XXIII, there followed the intermediate pontificates of Paul VI (1963-1978) and John Paul I (1978). It was up to Paul VI to implement Vatican II and his term in office ended somewhat chaotically, not least because of his issue of Humanae Vitae – which indicated how still out of touch the papacy was in that it did not foresee the reaction against it by many inside as well as outside the Catholic Church.

The pontificate of John Paul I was a last throw by Italians to keep the papacy Italian. But John Paul I died shortly after his election and the Polish Cardinal Wojtyla was elected as John Paul II. Whereas John XXIII’s pontificate had been very short, by papal standards that of John Paul II was long. John Paul II had two main goals. The first was to combat Communism, especially in Poland where he exerted enormous influence. The second was to check aspects of what many conservative Catholics saw as the increasingly out-of-control dynamic of the ‘spirit of Vatican II’.

A great actor, traveller, linguist, poet and sportsman, John Paul II was very popular, not least as the first non-Italian for centuries; indeed in popular appeal he can be compared with John XXIII who in his lifetime was nicknamed the ‘Good Pope’ (‘il Papa Buono’) – and also the current Francis I. Yet whereas John XXIII wanted to ‘open the window’ on reforming the Church, John Paul II seems to have believed that in some respects that window had been opened too wide! Indeed, despite great praise for the way in which he coped with the terrible Parkinsons disease with which he was afflicted during the last years of his pontificate, many Catholics saw John Paul II as increasingly authoritarian. Some have also charged him with underestimating the scale of the problem of paedophile priests. Certainly he was notoriously uninterested in bread-and-butter practical business of Vatican administration – a reason why – along with his ill health – in the last years of his pontificate he seems to have been duped into supporting a right-wing Catholic group called the Legionnaires of Christ, whose leader was only later exposed and then denounced by his successor Benedict XVI. Indeed it is likely that one of the reasons why Benedict XVI himself chose to retire was because he determined that his successor would not be left with similar problems arising from a pope who was too old and tired provide the Church with effective leadership.

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One Response to The Canonisations of John XXIII and John Paul II

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find
    this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand.

    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.

    I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try
    to get the hang of it!

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