VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis sped two of his predecessors toward sainthood Friday: John Paul II, who guided the Roman Catholic Church during the end of the Cold War, and John XXIII, who assembled the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
In approving the sainthood of John XXIII even without a second miracle attributable to the pontiff, Francis took the rare step of bypassing the Vatican bureaucracy. Francis also said a Vatican committee had accepted the validity of a second miracle attributed to the intercession of John Paul. Both popes are expected to be canonized before the end of the year.
Also Friday, Pope Francis issued his first encyclical — a rich meditation on faith and love co-written with his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The canonization cause for John Paul began almost immediately after his death in 2005. At his funeral, crowds in St. Peter’s Square began shouting “Sainthood now,” for the pope. He was beatified in May 2011, after a Vatican committee credited him with interceding to cure a French nun, Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, of Parkinson’s disease, the same illness which the pontiff suffered.
The second miracle attributed to John Paul is said to be the healing of a woman who prayed to the pope on his beatification.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis was eager to canonize John XXIII.
“Despite the absence of a second miracle it was the pope’s will that the sainthood of the great pope of the Second Vatican Council be recognized,” he said. But he played down the fact that Francis had bypassed a second miracle. “There are lots of theologians who in fact discuss the principle of the fact that it’s necessary to have two distinct miracles.”
Alberto Melloni, a Vatican historian and director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, a liberal Catholic research institute in Bologna, Italy, said the canonizations were an important nod to the more liberal wings of the Catholic Church. They “mark the end of a season that cast doubts over the Second Vatican Council,” he said.
“Many spoke about the council, criticized it as too weak and with too many compromises, but failed to feel the spirit of the council,” he added. “Both popes were bishops at the council, not theologians.”
He said it was significant that Francis bypassed the need for a second miracle attributed to John XXIII. Perhaps he decided “that the people of God have already made a judgment about the two popes,” he added.
At John Paul II’s beatification ceremony, which drew 1.5 million people to Rome, Benedict lauded his predecessor as a key figure in 20th century history and a hero in the church.
“He was witness to the tragic age of big ideologies, totalitarian regimes, and from their passing John Paul II embraced the harsh suffering, marked by tension and contradictions, of the transition of the modern age toward a new phase of history, showing constant concern that the human person be its protagonist,” Benedict said at the Mass.
While Benedict’s first encyclical, “God Is Love,” drew on the work of John Paul, Francis’s first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” or “The Light of Faith,” released Friday, is the first that the Vatican has openly acknowledged was written by two popes together. The encyclical calls on believers and seekers to explore how God can enrich their lives.
It also urges Catholics to uphold the church’s conception of the family.
“The first setting in which faith enlightened the human city is the family,” Francis writes. “I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage.”
The concluding chapter of the encyclical, which touches on the role of faith in reinforcing the common good, recalls the informal style of Francis.
The opening three chapters are rich in biblical and literary references and bear the mark of Benedict, a theologian who was head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office for 25 years before becoming pope in 2005. In addition to the Old Testament and the Gospel, the encyclical quotes Dante, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.
It also touches on a passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot,” in which Prince Myshkin sees the painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein the Younger and says, “Looking at this painting might cause one to lose his faith.”
“Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light,” Francis writes.