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Monday 20 November 2017

The halo effect: canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII

John Paul II made more saints in his 26-year papacy than all previous popes combined. Tomorrow – along with John XXIII – he'll be canonised himself and close on a million people will be in Rome to watch.

St. Peter's Square crowded by faithful attending a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 2001. Photo: AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti
St. Peter's Square crowded by faithful attending a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 2001. Photo: AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti
Calls are answered: A million pilgrims are expected to head for St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, left, for the canonisation of Pope John Paul II
John Meagher

John Meagher

The canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will be the Catholic Church's biggest day of celebration since Pope Francis was elected to the top job in the Vatican last year.

More than a million pilgrims are expected to throng St Peter's Square tomorrow, with 20 heads of state in attendance too.

And in an initiative more akin to a World Cup than a religious ceremony, Sky News has spent much of the week talking about the 3D cameras it is bringing along to the occasion and the high-ranking journalists that have been drafted in.

But making saints out of two of the most celebrated popes of the 20th century has caused much disquiet, especially in the case of John Paul II, as question marks hang over how much he knew about the child abuse scandals that dogged the church for years.

In particular, his critics believe his reputation has been besmirched due to the crimes of notorious paedophile Marcial Maciel, who founded the Legion of Christ, and was a man regularly praised by John Paul II during his papacy.

The Vatican has been quick to quash such criticism, with spokesman Federico Lombardi insisting that "there is no personal implication of the Holy Father in this affair".

Others believe canonisation is an antiquated tradition that has little place in the contemporary church. James Carroll, the respected Boston Globe columnist and author of several books about the Catholic Church, is among those to question the legitimacy of the twin canonisations.

Carroll argues that under the strict criteria of anointing saints, it must be proved that such a person – including John XXIII and John Paul II – succeeded in death of "getting God to bend the normal laws of nature for the sake of the one prayed for".

He writes: "That those events are taken to represent divine interventions says something quite horrible about how God operates – specifically, that even as God intervenes on behalf of those who pray to specific deceased mortals, all other people are left to their fate."

The process of canonising saints includes a lengthy investigation into all aspects of a candidate's life. Not only must Vatican investigators gather concrete evidence linking miracles to the person in question, but they must also conclude that he or she lived a holy life in line with church teachings.

This is done by conducting a thorough analysis of their writings, recorded statements and known actions. The miracles, incidentally, have to be medically proven to have had no natural or scientific explanation.

There are two miracles attributed to John Paul II, who died in 2005: the cure of a French nun with Parkinson's disease that same year, and the cure of a Costa Rican woman with an aneurysm in 2011.

John XXIII, meanwhile, who is best remembered as the pope who convened the modernising Second Vatican Council, is credited with just one miracle – the 1966 cure of an Italian nun who was dying from stomach haemorrhages.

It had long been saint-making practice for it to be proved that the candidate in question was responsible for at least two miracles, but that was quashed last year when Pope Francis made an exception for John XXIII.

The rules of canonisation have changed substantially in recent decades, most notably in 1983, when John Paul II removed the role of the Devil's Advocate – a figure who used to be charged with amassing arguments about why a candidate should not be made a saint. And in 1999 he waived the rule that stated a process of canonisation could not begin until five years after a candidate's death.

He did this in the case of Mother Teresa. It would also later be used for his own cause.

"For the first thousand years or so of the history of Christianity, canonisation was by popular acclamation, at a local level, and supervised to a greater or lesser extent by local bishops," says Salvador Ryan, professor of ecclesiastical history at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. "From the 10th century onwards, the process became more formal, with the first papal canonisation occurring at that time. By 1234, Pope Gregory XIV declared that no one could be declared a saint without the approval of the Pope.

'In 1588 the Congregation for Sacred Rites was set up to oversee the process of canonisations. The future Pope Benedict XIV in the mid-1730s produced a multi-volume work on the topic and these complex procedures passed into Canon Law and lasted up to the 20th century."

And those rigorous criteria would have been used up to 1975, when the last Irish person to be made a saint, Oliver Plunkett, was canonised.

For hundreds of years, the pool from which saints were drawn had been relatively narrow, according to Prof Ryan.

"Roughly four times more men than women were canonised," he says, "far more from religious orders with lobbying power than simple diocesan clergy, far more clergy or religious than laity, and if lay people were canonised they were most likely kings, queens and aristocrats.

"John Paul II radically changed the profile of the typical saint, both in their background and also geographically in that he tried to move away from the Euro-centric tradition of old."

In fact, John Paul II made more saints in his 26-year papacy than all previous popes combined. A hugely popular pope, there have been persistent calls for him to be made saint since his death.

Prof Ryan says: "When he died, the cries of "Santo Subito" – "make him a saint now!" – rang out in St Peter's Square. One news correspondent noted at the time that a woman turned to him and said: 'Please God, he'll be made a saint." And the journalist replied: 'I think he just has been'.

"In a way, in the case of John Paul II, we have returned to the practice of the first millennium of declaring a saint by popular acclamation."

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