POPE Francis will raise two of his predecessors – John Paul II and John XXIII – to sainthood today before a crowd of hundreds of thousands in StPeter’s Square, Vatican City.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI will appear, health permitting, providing the historic sight of two living popes canonising two pontiffs who were instrumental in shaping the Catholic Church in the second half of the 20th century.
Poles poured into Rome last night ahead of the ceremony, some arriving on foot to pay homage to John Paul, born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Silesia in 1920. He died in 2005 after a 27-year papacy in which he battled against communism in Poland, helping destabilise the Soviet Union.
“By helping the world shift to post-communism without bloodshed was something of a lay miracle,” said Saverio Gaeta, who co-authored a book on the right-wing pope with Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator for his sainthood.
His beatification ceremony in 2011 drew 1.5 million, although fewer are expected today since so many Poles already consider the globetrotting pontiff a saint.
At his funeral in 2005, crowds chanted “santo subito” – sainthood immediately – prompting his similarly conservative successor Benedict to waive the rule that the sainthood process should not start until five years after a candidate’s death.
Critics of the Vatican’s track record of covering up for paedophile priests have argued that John Paul’s canonisation is an insult to victims, claiming he ignored the groundswell of complaints about rape and molestation on his watch.
“It’s time for the Vatican to stop honouring those who enabled wrongdoing,” said Barbara Blaine, the president of the victims’ group SNAP, which planned a candlelit vigil in Rome on the eve of the canonisation.
Defending the Polish pope, his former press officer Joaquin Navarro-Valls said last week that John Paul’s “purity of thought” made it hard for him to believe the reports.
What marks out today’s event as unorthodox, and typical of the reforming Francis I’s mould-breaking style, is his decision to grant John Paul’s predecessor, John XXIII – born Angelo Roncalli in 1881 – sainthood on the same day.
Known as the “good pope” for his sense of humour and informal style, the Italian-born John reigned from 1958 to 1963 and ushered in the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council, which launched the use of the vernacular in the mass and tried to decentralise the Vatican’s power into the hands of bishops around the world, a campaign that Francis has relaunched with vigour following years of scandals behind the Vatican’s walls.
John also won the hearts of Catholics, in much the same way modest Argentine Francis, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has done, five decades on. “Pope Francis has the ability to be close to people that really recalls Pope John,” said Cardinal Loris Francesco Capovilla, 98, who served as John’s papal secretary and was made a cardinal by Francis, reflecting Francis’s regard for John.
Speaking to journalists last year, Francis claimed he was not, however, playing favourites by lining up John with John Paul, stating: “To canonise them both together will be, for me, a message for the church: these two were wonderful, both of them.”
He has, however, allowed John to gain sainthood with just one miracle to his name, not the customary two.
While John Paul is credited with the inexplicable cure of a French nun with Parkinson’s disease and a Costa Rican woman with an aneurysm, John is only credited with the cure of an ill Italian nun in 1966. But using his prerogative, Francis overruled the two-miracle rule last year for John.
Father James Martin, an American Jesuit and author, said Francis was justified in not getting too formal. “Two miracles is impressive, but one miracle is impressive too, that should suffice,” he said.