Historical ‘firsts’ | Inquirer Opinion

Historical ‘firsts’

On Sunday, Pope Francis will enroll Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in the roster of saints—alongside Pedro Calungsod and Lorenzo Ruiz of the Philippines, who took more than three centuries to get into the list. This will be the first time, in over 2,000 years, that two pontiffs will be canonized together.

Benedict XVI—the first pontiff to resign since 1415 AD, when Gregory stood down to avoid schism—is attending the canonization. “Rome will witness an event that’s never happened in the city’s history: two living popes and two pope saints,” Msgr. Liberio Andreatta told reporters.


The last time a pope was declared a saint was in May 1954. Pius X was the first since Pius V was canonized five centuries earlier.

Thus, 19 heads of state plus 24 prime ministers will be in attendance. “Guesstimates” abound on how many pilgrims will flood into Rome, where hotel room rates have bolted by 63 percent.


“You’ve got a good chunk of humanity who can remember vividly these two men,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan notes. “This is a vivid way to say that the pursuit of virtue is for today.”

Francis splices, in one ceremony, two schools of thought on what a pope should be: a simple parish-priest figure like Angelo Roncalli of Italy and a globe-trotting star like Karol Wojtyla of Poland.

Elected as transition pope in 1958, Roncalli as John XXIII called out: Apertura a sinistra. Open the windows and let the fresh air in.  He died in 1963, before the Second Vatican Council, which he convened, “jolted a sclerotic Church to its founding fervor.”

“Let me tell you about my uncle,” John XXIII’s great grandnephew Marco Roncalli told L’Osservatore Romano. He has devoted 30 years to studying the pontiff’s life and documents.

“Often at home, I heard testimonies of his goodness, his silent charity… I remember that when I was small, I accompanied Giuseppe, the Pope’s youngest brother, in the evening.” John was a “Pope of flesh,” he said. “He rendered visible that holiness which was private and public.” His legacy partly consists of “a second conciliar spring that is being lived…,” the answer to a widespread need of mercy, which is a key word of a pastoral pontificate.

John XXIII was puzzled why his visits to orphanages, hospitals and prisons in Rome caused a stir in the press. Shouldn’t the bishop reach out to the neediest? He was his same simple self when talking with orphans and prisoners or presidents and diplomats. Love begets love: John XXIII charmed people simply because his heart went out to them with great love, a Canadian commentary notes.

John Paul II “was a holy man, but was he a saint?” asks the Irish Times. “His travels, his personal witness to suffering and illness, ability to forgive Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to assassinate him in 1981, and many other qualities explain why the crowds began that ‘Santo subito (Make him a saint now)!’ chant in St. Peter’s Square at his funeral, in 2005. That chant was arguably the biggest spur to setting him on the fast track to sainthood.”


In his 27-year pontificate, John Paul proved one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, not least because of his fundamental role in the downfall of Eastern Bloc communism. His mindset was formed by resisting the first Nazi dictatorship, then Soviet communism.

Reservations persist up to the eve of his canonization. These do not impinge on his integrity, but on some of his policy failures that range from his handling of sex abuse cases to his lack of sympathy for the liberation theology movement of the late 1970s.

The late cardinal of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, questioned some of John Paul’s appointments, Corriere Della Sera reports. Martini recalled him as a “faithful” man of God whose “best moments” were “his meetings with the masses and with young people… He should have retired before the illness became so bad.”

In the Middle East today, “British nurses hide crucifixes from view; Filipino nurses furtively read banned Christmas catalogues; Christian physicians whisper their weekend plans, referring to church services as ‘gatherings’ at diplomatic compounds. Christian Pakistani matrons scheduling the nursing rota risk false accusations of blasphemy,” writes Templeton Cambridge Journalism Fellow Qanta Ahmed.

“Islam reveres Mary, the mother of Jesus, values the Injeel (Gospel) and Torah as the Word of God, and holds holy Jesus, Moses and Aaron. [This] is in jeopardy from the Islamists, who would have us deny our brotherhood with Christianity.”

The spite drives the exodus of Christians. “Is this what we tolerate, Muslims? Is this who we are?” Ahmed asks. “As Muslims we must ease this burden, or risk becoming ourselves that which we tolerate.”

John Paul II was cool to Óscar Romero, the El Salvador archbishop gunned down by the military in 1980. For many, Romero was a true martyr, killed because of his denunciation of human-rights abuses. “John Paul produced more beatifications (1,338) and canonizations (482) than all 2,000 years of previous popes. But he could never find room for Romero.”

Francis had been barely a month as pontiff when he approved Romero’s beatification process. “Is Francis telling us that John Paul’s battle with communism in his native Poland tainted his vision?”

Francis also received theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian founding father of liberation theology, at Santa Marta last September. Thus, the Irish Times says: Perhaps, “the miracle is right in front of us: the election of Pope Francis.”

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TAGS: canonization, Catholic Church, History, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Pope, Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, Pope John XXIII, Religion, Saints, Vatican, Viewpoint
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