Vatican's canonisation of two popes a signal that renewal they set in motion will continue
Published 28/04/2014 | 02:30
SEVERAL memories stand out for me from the days in Rome in April 2005 following the death of John Paul II. I was covering the event for this newspaper.
The first was when the enormous queue first began to form on Via della Conciliazione, the avenue running down from St Peter's Square, to view his body as it lay in St Peter's Basilica. People waited for up to 24 hours for their turn to pay their respects.
But on that first day a group of Sikhs in their turbans were near the very top of the queue. They were neither Catholic nor Christian and I was curious to find out why they were there. They told me they were there "because John Paul was a man of God".
The second was the day before the funeral. Italian police had said that no one else could join the queue so the area around St Peter's could be cleared in time for the funeral.
But the Poles had not yet arrived in big numbers and they were not to be thwarted.
They had come not only for the funeral but to pay their respects to their compatriot first.
And so the police let them have their way. Via della Conciliazione had now been cleared of the queue and the Poles had it all to themselves.
They arrived at one end of the avenue en masse and marched down it like an army with their banners and their national flag flying overhead. It was an absolutely amazing sight.
The third memory that sticks in my mind was the day of the funeral itself, when the crowd began chanting 'Santo Subito', meaning 'saint now'.
I think the events of that week created the impetus which led to the quick canonisation of John Paul II and John XXIII.
John XXIII died in 1963 before the age of mass media really took hold and before cheap travel could bring people to Rome in huge numbers.
While he was greatly loved, he simply did not have the enormous worldwide following that John Paul had and he was pope for only five years – as against John Paul's 27 years.
Therefore the 'saint by popular acclamation' effect that has helped to bring about the quick canonisation of John Paul – it's only nine years since his death after all – didn't work in the same way in the case of John XXIII, despite how well loved he was.
As it is, some observers estimated that around three-quarters of those in Rome for yesterday's double canonisation were there more for John Paul than for John.
In fact, I suspect that if John Paul II had not been canonised yesterday, then the canonisation of John XXIII would still have been some years away.
I think the reason he was canonised on the same day as John Paul was because Pope Francis – who is like Pope John in many ways – wanted to make a statement about his vision of the church and the Second Vatican Council and he could only do that by canonising both of them together.
This is why in the case of John XXIII he waived the normal rule that two miracles must be attested to before someone can be declared a saint.
John XXIII is, of course, most famous for convening the Second Vatican Council which set out to renew the church and bring about a 'new Pentecost', a new age of the Holy Spirit.
This is why Pope Francis yesterday said Pope John was "the pope of openness to the Spirit".
It is said that Pope John opened the windows of the church to let in fresh air and John Paul slammed them shut again. But that is a gross caricature of what happened.
John XXIII did indeed want to open the windows of the Church to the world but he would never have anticipated some of the things that happened subsequently, such as thousands of priests and religious abandoning their vows, the collapse of vocations in the West and the extreme extent of the dissent among many theologians against some of the most basic tenets of Catholicism and indeed Christianity.
John Paul II, upon his election in 1978, set about rescuing the Second Vatican Council from these disasters, not rolling it back.
He was saving it from those who had grossly misinterpreted it to justify things the council itself never mandated.
So in a way the double canonisation was a statement by Pope Francis about the nature of that council.
He is glad that it was held. He is glad that St John XXIII opened the doors and windows of the church which he himself is doing, but he is also glad that St John Paul II rescued the Council by clarifying what it did and did not mandate.
As Pope Francis put it in his homily yesterday: "John XXIII and John Paul II co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries."
That sums it up about as well as anyone can. A process of renewal was set in motion by John XXIII but John Paul II ensured that renewal – which is still only starting – is in keeping with the core tenets of the Church.
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