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Historic and high-drama

Publication Date : 30-04-2014


The view in Rome last Sunday was spectacular. As productions went, the canonization of the late popes John XXIII and John Paul II was the kind of non-CGI blockbuster that would be hard to top: nearly a million people in and around the Vatican; some 6,000 priests, 1,000 bishops and 154 cardinals concelebrating; about 100 heads of state and governments; over 2,000 police deployed to provide security and manage the crowds; 19 giant screens in various parts of Rome to allow those unable to squeeze themselves into St. Peter’s Square to follow the proceedings—and reportedly some 980 public toilets to service all that fervent, enraptured humanity.

And then there were the four popes in the spotlight—two who had passed on and were now about to be elevated to the hallowed status of saints of the Catholic Church, and two living ones, the resigned Benedict XVI, who came out of self-imposed seclusion to join the ceremonies, and the current Francis, under whose populist hand this magnificent public spectacle had come to pass. The exultant event seemed to signal, if not the complete rehabilitation of the Church from the miasma of scandals it found itself in during the last few years, then at least some form of resurgence and reclaimed popularity, thanks in large part to Francis’ widely reported unorthodox ways in the ultraorthodox world of the Vatican.

The moment everyone had been waiting for, meanwhile, took about six minutes—the length of time Francis took to read the formal Church proclamation in Latin declaring his two predecessor popes as newly minted saints, and “decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.” With that, John XXIII and John Paul II joined a most rarefied club—“popes who have been declared saints. Before today, only seven had won halos in the last 1,000 years,” noted The Boston Globe’s veteran Vatican reporter John Allen Jr.

The show of Catholic unity was galvanizing—perhaps the very image and message Francis was banking on when he decided to waive the traditional requirement of a second validated miracle attributed to “Good Pope John,” so the well-loved convener of the historic Second Vatican Council could be elevated to sainthood at the same time as the Polish John Paul, who himself enjoyed a fast-track route to beatification. Benedict declared him “Blessed,” or one rung below full-fledged saint, soon after his death, dispensing with the usual five-year waiting period before the process is started. With the ceremonies last Sunday, John Paul became the fastest candidate for sainthood to be canonized since the 1500s.

Bringing the two popes together appear to be part of Francis’ master plan to encourage healing and solidarity in the Church. Though both are hailed for their devout example, John XXIII and John Paul II are, by conventional wisdom, deemed radically different from each other. The former, by opening the Church to reform and modernization through Vatican II, is fondly remembered for making the Church more attuned to and engaged with contemporary times.

Not everyone, though, agreed with that direction—among them, it seemed, John Paul II, who, while credited with helping defeat communism, condemning war and encouraging interfaith dialogue, also spent much of his papacy entrenching the Church ever more firmly in doctrinaire—some say woefully out of touch—positions. It was also in the latter part of his watch that a worldwide sex-abuse scandal rocked the Church to its foundation, but with no firm resolution coming from the then ailing pope.

John Paul’s successor, Benedict, went even more inward during his short-lived papacy, courting controversy right and left with seemingly thoughtless remarks against Muslims, Protestants, gay people and AIDS sufferers, among others, while extending a warm embrace to ultraconservative Catholics hankering for a more severe, puritanical Church.

Lately, the Church has appeared to be on the mend, or at least enjoying a break from its string of tribulations, with the warm presence Francis has brought to the papacy. The humble Argentine has surprised everyone with his modesty and light touch, his seeming openness to modern ideas, his radical ordinariness.

He may just turn out to be the ideal leader to galvanise the Church into a new era of unity and inclusiveness. His historic, high-drama production of canonizing two popes of different persuasions could stand as his grand statement on this vision.


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