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November 21, 2014
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Francis creates saints in bid to unite Church

Proclamation of two new idols seen as part of balancing act pleasing left, right wings of Catholicism.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis proclaimed his papal predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II as saints yesterday in front of more than half a million pilgrims at the Vatican, hailing both as courageous men who withstood the tragedies of the 20th century.

But the cheers and applause of the Catholic faithful, which rang out across the Vatican was contrasted by the words of analysts, who saw the historic double canonization as part of delicate balancing act by the current pontiff, designed to please both the conservative and progressive wings of the Catholic Church.

As if to drive the message of unity home, Francis — formerly known in Argentina as cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — invited retired Pope Benedict XVI to join him on the altar of St Peter’s Square, the first time a reigning and retired pope have celebrated Mass together in public in the 2,000-year history of the Church.

With two pontiffs present, and two others being celebrated, press reports hailed yesterday as “the day of four popes.”

An estimated 800,000 people — many of them from John Paul’s native Poland — filled St Peter’s, the streets around it and bridges over the Tiber River, a huge turn-out but only half the size of the crowd that came out for John Paul’s 2011 beatification. Kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers from more than 90 countries attended — including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who flouted an EU-travel ban thanks to the Vatican’s independence from Italy.

While both John and John Paul were widely revered, there has also been criticism that John Paul II, who died just nine years ago, has been canonized too quickly. Groups representing victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests also say he did not do enough to root out a scandal that emerged towards the end of his pontificate and which has hung over the Church ever since.

The controversy did nothing to put off the faithful though.

“I think that they were two great people, each of them had their own particular character, so they deserve what is happening,” said Leonardo Ruino, who travelled from Argentina for the event.

Making history

During the ceremony, Francis took a deep breath and paused for a moment before reciting the saint-making formula in Latin, as if moved by the history he was about to make in canonizing two popes at once.

“We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church,” the pontiff said in his formal proclamation in Latin.

Relics of each man — a container of blood from John Paul II and skin from John XXIII — were placed near the altar and two huge tapestries of the saints hung from the façade of the basicilia.

“These were two men of courage... and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy,” Francis said in his address.

“They lived through the tragic events of that (20th) century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful,” he added.

John, an Italian often known as the “Good Pope” because of his friendly, open personality, is seen by some as a model for Francis’ papacy. He reigned from 1958-1963 and is a hero to liberal Catholics for having convened the Second Vatican Council. The meetings brought the Church into the modern era by allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages rather than Latin and encouraged greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.

As if to highlight how much relations with Judaism had changed, about 20 Jewish leaders from the US, Israel, Italy, Francis’ native Argentina and Poland were in attendance.

During his globe-trotting, quarter-century papacy, John Paul II invigorated a new generation of Catholics and has been subsequently praised for helping to topple Communism, while his defence of core Church teaching on abortion, marriage and other hot-button issues heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s. He was criticized by some for tightening central control and his condemnation of theological renegades. A charismatic, dominant pope, he was seen by many as a rigid conservative.

Benedict was one of John Paul’s closest confidantes and went on to preside over a deeply tradition-minded eight-year papacy. By contrast, Francis seems a pope much more inspired by the pastoral, simple style of John.

The Argentine-born pontiff offered each new saint heartfelt praise in his homily, saying John had allowed himself to be led by God to call the council, and hailing John Paul’s focus on the family. It’s an issue that Francis has asked the Church as a whole to take up for discussion with a two-year debate starting this fall.

Fast-track

The election of Francis has injected fresh enthusiasm into a Church beset by sexual and financial scandals during the papacy of Benedict, who last year became the first pope to resign in 600 years. The current pontiff has been widely praised too by those outside the Church, for adopting a more liberal stance than his predecessor and using conciliatory language toward homosexuals.

It was Benedict who put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his 2005 death, responding to the chants of “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Now!” that erupted during his funeral Mass. John Paul’s canonization is now the fastest in modern times.

John’s sainthood run, on the other hand, languished after his 2000 beatification. Rather than let John Paul have the limelight with a canonization on his own — emboldening many in the conservative wing of the Church — Francis decided to pair him up with John. To do so, Francis tweaked the Vatican’s own saint-making rules, deciding that John could be made a saint alongside John Paul without the necessary second miracle usually required.

While it was supposed to be a canonization for two men, it was clear that the vast majority of people who turned out yesterday were there for the Polish-born former pontiff.

“John Paul was our pope,” said Therese Andjoua, a 49-year-old nurse who travelled from Gabon, with some 300 other pilgrims to attend.

Many in the crowd were Polish and the country’s ref and white flags could be seen throughout Vatican City.

“For years Pope John Paul II took the Church to the ends of the earth and today the ends of the earth have come back here,” said Father Tom Rosica, who travelled for the ceremony from Canada.

Herald with AP, Reuters

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Tags:  Francis  canonisation  Popes  John Paul II  John XXIII  





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