ROME — Oct. 11, 1962, brought a beautiful moonlit night to Rome. Pope John XXIII was in an ebullient mood because of that morning’s launch of the Second Vatican Council, a gathering conceived by the pontiff in which bishops from around the world would throw open the windows of the Catholic Church to the modern world.
The first pope of television’s Golden Age, “Good Pope John” had a roly-poly, grandfatherly persona and seemingly inexhaustible cheer that won fans everywhere, though the changes he set in motion also stirred up critics, then and now. That night, the pope looked out over St. Peter’s Square at the vast crowd praying for the council, and made some off-the-cuff remarks that passed into history as his “Sermon on the Moon.”
A son of sharecroppers, he marveled at how a “simple brother” like him had become the father of the Church, which is what “pope” means. He mused that even the moon wanted to be part of the scene that night, and he ended with a line that is burned into Italian national consciousness much as “four score and seven years” is for Americans.
“Tonight, when you get home, you’re going to find your kids,” Pope John said. “I want you to give your kids a caress . . . and tell them that this caress comes from the pope!”
No one could recall hearing a pope address the faithful in quite that way.
Almost 20 years later, another pope would electrify the world. The church had never seen or heard anyone quite like him, either.
The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul II, young and vigorous and a tireless traveler in the name of the faith, became a global icon after suffering an assassination attempt in May 1981 — just three years after his election — and then visiting a Roman prison to forgive his would-be killer.
Historians believe the Polish pope played a role in the collapse of communism through his support for the Solidarity movement, and when he returned to Warsaw for a dramatic 1979 homecoming, he drew vast crowds to an outdoor Mass, a crowd unafraid, as was John Paul, to defy communist orthodoxy.
“We want God!” they thundered. “We want God!”
These two astonishing and very different men share Rome’s center stage today, as Pope Francis inducts two of his predecessors into another exclusive club — popes who have been declared saints. Before today, only seven had won halos in the last 1,000 years.
The dimensions of this canonization, the formal term for declaring someone a saint, hint at the massive grass roots following of these particular popes. More than 1,000 bishops and an army of 6,000 priests will join Francis in celebrating Mass, while Roman authorities have deployed 2,500 extra personnel to provide security and set up 19 massive TV screens around the city to accommodate overflow crowds. Some 200 clergy have been designated to hand out communion in the vicinity of the Vatican alone.
In the run-up to the event, Rome’s popular Piazza Navona was transformed into a virtual Polish colony, bursting with devotees from John Paul’s native country, while elsewhere the melodious tones of Bergamasco, the dialect of John XXIII’s home region of Bergamo, filled the air.
John XXIII and John Paul II may be similar in celebrity status, but in other ways they come off almost as a study in contrasts. Beyond the obvious counterpoint in style and heritage, the two pontiffs had and retain very different bases of support.
John XXIII is remembered as the father of the Vatican II (1962-65), a gathering that launched the Catholic Church on a course of reform and modernization. That makes him an icon for the left, while John Paul II’s battles against communism, his unrelenting defense of Catholic tradition, and his crusades against what he saw as a “culture of death” behind liberalizing currents on abortion and other matters of sexual morality combine to make the Polish pope a hero to the right.
Because of their different followings, bringing them together in one canonization ceremony seems, to many, a statement about where Francis wants the church to go.
“Most progressive Catholics idealized Pope John but had reservations about John Paul, while conservative Catholics felt the opposite,” said Jesuit priest Thomas Reese, a National Catholic Reporter columnist. “Pope Francis is trying to bring both groups together.”
A great impact on the world
Catholic tradition holds that sainthood is supposed to begin with the “fame of holiness.” This special brand of renown was easy to confirm for Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla, the given names of John XXIII and John Paul II.
Evidence of this kind of a deep and broad devotion to John Paul II was obvious during his funeral Mass nine years ago, when mourners in Rome took up the chant “Santo subito!,” meaning “Sainthood now!”
Today memories of John Paul II have been distorted by the way his life ended, as an aging and frail man hobbled by Parkinson’s disease. It’s harder to remember how it all began back in October 1978, when a dynamic, mountain-climbing young Pole burst upon the world stage.
Over the next quarter-century John Paul would make 104 trips to 129 countries, including a 1995 outing to Manila that drew over 5 million people, regarded as the largest Christian gathering of all time. One estimate holds that John Paul II was seen in the flesh by 300 million people during his papacy, more, perhaps, than any other human being in history.
John Paul reached out to other Christians and other religions, convening a historic 1986 inter-faith summit in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis.
“He imposed a moral authority that made even Muslims speak of him as their pope,” said Bishop Matthew Kukah of Skoto, Nigeria, in the country’s Muslim-dominated north.
He was also a pioneer in Christian/Jewish relations, becoming the first pope since St. Peter to enter a synagogue, and traveling to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2002 to leave behind a handwritten note begging forgiveness for the cruelties inflicted on Jews by men and women raised as Christians.
John Paul II had a special affection for youth. He founded World Youth Day, a global gathering held every two or three years that’s become the Olympic Games of the Catholic Church. He inspired a whole generation of zealous young clergy known today as “JPII priests,” marked by a strong commitment to traditional priestly discipline and orthodox Catholic belief.
John Paul’s emphasis on Catholic identity sometimes made him a lightning rod, though he challenged conservatives too with his passion for social justice, including fierce opposition to both the death penalty and to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003.
His impact in life was clear from the turnout for his death. Four kings and five queens, plus 70 presidents and prime ministers, attended his funeral on April 8, 2005, joining more than 1 million ordinary folks. The estimated worldwide viewership was 2 billion, leading Vatican officials to say it was the most-watched live event in the history of television.
‘Spirit of Pope John lives on’
Because John XXIII is further removed in time, he’s not as much a part of living memory. Yet in many ways, he was the original superstar pope.
Volumes have been filled with John XXIII’s wit and wisdom, some of which may be apocryphal. When once asked by a visitor how many people worked in the Vatican, for instance, John XXIII supposedly quipped, “About half!” When talking to Protestants who warned him they had different theological ideas, John XXIII allegedly replied, “Ideas, ideas . . . what are ideas among friends?”
In April 1963, John XXIII published his last encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth). It was a call for brotherhood at the peak of the Cold War, and the pope had credibility as a messenger of peace. Months earlier both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John Kennedy credited him with helping to defuse the Cuban missile crisis by begging both governments “not to remain deaf to the cry of humanity.”
Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, a former American ambassador to the Vatican and a confidante of the last three popes, says those were days of deep Catholic pride.
“JFK spoke for many of us in his [April 1963] commencement address at Boston College when he said how proud he was, as a Catholic and as an American, of the pope’s message addressed to all men and women of good will,” Glendon told the Globe.
Earlier in his career, Roncalli had served as a papal ambassador in Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria at the outset of World War II. His aid to the Jewish underground has led some Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Simon Moguilevsky of Buenos Aires, to propose Pope John for the designation of “Righteous among Nations,” bestowed by the Yad Vashem museum in Israel to acknowledge non-Jews who resisted the Holocaust.
Roncalli was elected to the papacy in 1958 after the long reign of Pius XII, and was seen at the time as an interim solution after none of the higher-profile Italian contenders could scrape together the required two-thirds majority.
His signature move was convening the Vatican council, a summit of more than 2,000 bishops that produced 16 dense documents and remains the most scrutinized, and debated, chapter of modern Catholic history.
At the popular level, Vatican II is associated with a more contemporary form of worship, including the use of local languages rather than Latin; some decentralization of authority, including empowering lay people; embracing religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the separation of church and state; dialogue with other Christian churches and other religions; and putting the Catholic Church on the side of justice and peace.
Those causes tend to be especially dear to liberal Catholics, so John XXIII became their emblem. The highest compliment they can bestow upon Francis is that he reminds them of John XXIII.
“The spirit of Pope John lives on in Francis,” said Alberto Melloni, a Catholic intellectual in Italy and direct of a multivolume history of Vatican II that’s considered the standard liberal account of the event.
Most experts see Sunday’s ceremony not just as a seal of approval on Pope John, but on the council he convened.
“In canonizing John, the Church is canonizing the council,” said Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican magazine.
Their acclaim not universal
To be sure, the acclaim enjoyed by John XXIII and John Paul II is not universal.
Roberto de Mattei, an Italian church historian known for traditional positions, argues that John XXIII and the council he summoned triggered a precipitous decline in the number of priests and nuns, as well as Mass attendance, by watering down the faith.
“To be considered a saint, a pope must have exercised heroic virtue in performing his mission as pontiff,” de Mattei said. “As far as John XXIII, I am certain his pontificate was objectively harmful to the church and so it is impossible to speak of sanctity for him.”
With John Paul II, some liberals object that he frustrated the reforming vision of Vatican II by centralizing power in Rome, disciplining liberal thinkers such as leading figures in Latin America’s liberation theology movement, and elevating a cohort of conservative bishops around the world.
Advocates for victims of clerical sexual abuse also charge that John Paul II turned a blind eye to the church’s scandals, citing his support for Marcial Maciel Degollado, the now-deceased Mexican priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ and who was later acknowledged to have committed a wide range of abuse and misconduct, and the fact that John Paul welcomed Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law to Rome after he resigned in disgrace in 2002.
Canonizing John Paul “sends precisely the most harmful signal to Catholic employees across the globe — that no matter how much you endanger kids, you’ll be honored by the church,” asserted a statement from the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest advocacy group in the United States.
Canadian priest Thomas Rosica, who founded the Salt and Light Catholic media network and who assists the Vatican with the English-language press, insisted that canonizing a pope is not the same thing as sanitizing his papacy.
“It does not mean the person was without blindness, deafness, or sin,” he said.
There’s also controversy surrounding the whole idea of bestowing halos on popes.
Paul Valley, a British writer on religion and author of a biography of Pope Francis, warns that the church needs to find some lay saints, especially women, because if they keep churning out popes the impression will be it is a status especially for church men in power — “heavenly joys for the boys.”
Francis is a politically savvy leader aware of this criticism. He’s decided not to be deterred by it, even waiving the usual requirement of a second miracle for John XXIII in order to elevate him alongside John Paul II.
(Church law requires one miracle in order to beatify someone, the final stage before sainthood, and a second for canonization. John Paul II’s reported miracles involve the healing of a French nun from Parkinson’s disease and a Costa Rican mother of two from a brain aneurysm. The reported miracle certified for John XXIII’s beatification in 2000 involved the healing of an Italian nun from a severe stomach disorder.)
Francis’ determination raises the question: What is he saying by putting these figures together?
John Thavis, a former Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service and author of “The Vatican Diaries,” said he reads the double-move as a way to declare “an end, or at least a truce, to the interpretive battles over the Second Vatican Council.”
John Carr, a former policy adviser to the US bishops who now runs a Georgetown University center for Catholic social thought, agreed that Francis is trying to bring left and right together. “The 65-year-old progressive urban pastor can smile at the memory and hopes that came with John XXIII, while the JPII generation of younger and more conservative priests can celebrate the leadership that called them to serve the Church,” Carr said.
One point where Francis seems to perceive continuity between his two predecessors, as well as with himself, is their devotion to the traditional Christian virtue of mercy.
John XXIII urged the church to dispense “the medicine of mercy” in his speech at the opening of Vatican II, while John Paul II was attached to a special form of prayer to divine mercy introduced by St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun, in the early 20th century. When he canonized Kowalska in 2000, John Paul declared it “the happiest day of my life.”
Francis has made mercy the cornerstone of his own papacy, and it’s no accident he chose to stage the dual canonizations on the first Sunday after Easter, which marks the Feast of Divine Mercy put on the church’s calendar by John Paul II.
Perhaps the spectacle of two popes with star power raised to sainthood by another currently basking in widespread popularity suggests one other lesson.
While Catholicism may appear awfully papal-centric, no pontiff, however large he looms, is ever the last word. In that sense, recalling these erstwhile giants may illustrate the warning which, once upon a time, was pronounced to every new pope during his coronation ceremony: “Sic transit gloria mundi,” or, “Thus passes the glory of the world.”
“No one pope defines the whole Church,” said Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon, Canada, a 53-year-old born during the reign of John XXIII and who served under John Paul II in the Vatican.
“Together, they show us different but equally courageous ways of following the One who calls us all,” Bolen said.