This weekend, more than 800,000 spectators crowded the St. Peter’s Square area while 500,000 more watched on giant screens around Rome as Pope Francis canonized Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The first time a pope has sainted two popes at the same time, this historic event has been called a savvy political move by the media, since Pope Francis recognized both the more liberal John XXIII and the more conservative John Paul II, thus satisfying two opposing wings of the Roman Catholic church. While Pope Francis did indeed display political savvy at this canonization, this event holds far more significance than that (even leaving aside the spiritual question of discerning sainthood).
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When Pope Francis canonizes Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday, Catholics across the spectrum will have reason to cheer: Liberals credit John with opening the church to the modern world in the 1960s, and conservatives hail John Paul as reasserting orthodoxy after too many innovations.
But the unprecedented double-barreled canonization also raises a question that might give both sides pause: Why is Rome making saints of almost every modern pontiff after nearly a millennium when almost no popes were canonized?
In the first 500 years of Christianity, the Apostle Peter (considered the first pope by tradition) and 47 of his 48 papal successors were viewed as saints, mainly because so many of them were martyred, which is the simplest route to canonization. Another 30 popes were named saints in the next 500 years, largely based on their reputation for sanctity.
Hundreds of pilgrims wind their way around St. Peter’s Square as tour guides shout in multiple languages. Beggars have their hands outstretched amid warnings of an invasion of pickpockets from abroad.
Italian authorities are expecting at least a million pilgrims, including heads of state, prime ministers, and diplomats from 54 countries. One group of Polish pilgrims is making the 2,000-mile trek on horseback, dressed in medieval costumes, to celebrate Poland’s most famous native son.
Pope John Paul II won’t officially become a saint until a special high-profile ceremony next month at the Vatican. But the man who succeeded him says he has seen him in that light for years.
The Polish pontiff “did not ask for applause and never looked troubled when he was making difficult decisions,” Benedict said. “He acted in accord with his faith and beliefs, and he was willing to endure blows against him. I could and should not imitate him, but I did try to continue his legacy and his mission the best way I could.”
It’s almost a year since Pope Francis was chosen as Benedict XVI’s successor. The Argentinian-born pontiff has quickly achieved global fame for his numerous statements indicating that significant changes may be coming to the Roman Catholic Church.
One possible change emerged last month when London’s Sunday Times reported that Francis wants to make public the Vatican’s archives of Pius XII’s pontificate. Eugenio Pacelli became pope in 1939 and served as pontiff during the period of World War II and the Holocaust until his death in 1958.
According to the British newspaper, Francis wants to release the Pius XII papers for study before determining whether to consider his controversial predecessor for sainthood. Francis has already “fast-tracked” the path to sainthood for John XXIII and John Paul II, but not Pius XII.
Vatican officials say reports that Pope Francis has been slipping out at night to visit the homeless in Rome are “simply not true,” though that hasn’t stopped the stories from capturing the public imagination.
That’s probably because such tales seem right in line with Francis’ unconventional and pastoral style. What’s more, the faithful always love it when a church leader sneaks under the radar to make a point — witness the fascination with the Mormon bishop who recently disguised himself as a panhandler and then revealed his identity when he climbed into the pulpit.
But breaking out of the “gilded cage” of the Vatican has been a dream of many popes and other churchmen who fear losing touch with their calling as pastors — or simply their connection to ordinary life.
Vatican officials say they expect next year’s celebration for the canonizations of former popes John Paul II and John XXIII to be attended by as many as 100 heads of state in what is likely to be the biggest draw to the city since John Paul’s funeral in 2005.
The crowd estimates were made Tuesday, the feast day for John Paul. This will be the last time he will be venerated as Blessed Pope John Paul II; after the canonization ceremony on April 27, 2014, he will be known as St. Pope John Paul II.
John Paul’s 2005 funeral may have been the single largest gathering in Christian history, with estimates as high as 4 million mourners gathered in the Italian capital, along with at least 80 presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs.
Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will be formally declared saints on April 27, 2014, the Vatican said Monday. Pope Francis made the announcement during a meeting with cardinals gathered in Rome.
John Paul, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, and John, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, are considered two of the most influential religious leaders in the world in the last century, and they represent two poles in Roman Catholicism — John XXIII is a hero to liberals, while John Paul II is widely hailed by conservatives.
When the Vatican announced this month that Pope Francis would formally elevate Popes John Paul II and John XXIII to sainthood, two things stood out.
For John Paul, it was the record speed that he reached sainthood, just eight years after his death. The only other saint to be canonized so quickly in modern times was Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, whose sainthood bid took 27 years.
But for John XXIII, Francis decided to waive the church law that requires a second miracle in order to be named a saint. Asked how John XXIII could be named a saint without the required second miracle, the Vatican’s chief spokesman said “no one doubts his virtues.”
Pope Francis declared on Friday that Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will be made saints, elevating the two most decisive popes of the 20th century to the pantheon of Catholic life and worship.
In a sign of the worldwide devotion for John XXIII, known as “Good Pope John,” Francis waived the requirement for a second miracle credited to John XXIII’s intercession, with the Vatican’s spokesman saying, “no one doubts his virtues.”
Francis signed off on a decree recognizing the second miracle attributed to the Polish-born John Paul II, who reigned from 1978 to 2005 , and is credited with globalizing the papacy and playing a key role in the downfall of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.