Two popes will become saints this week. On Sunday, Pope Francis will officially add to the Roman Catholic canon the names of two of his recent predecessors: Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. It would be better if he were not doing so.
Francis has had no choice in the case of John Paul II, the most popular pope ever in terms of the sheer numbers who flocked to see him during the 26-and-a-half years of his globe-trotting pontificate. He has been made a saint faster than anyone in history, in a process that began only days after his death in April 2005. The crowds gathered at his funeral chanted, “Santo Subito!” (“Make him a saint now!”). Normally five years have to pass before the procedure can begin. But the waiting period was waived by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who wanted to consolidate the conservative legacy of the Polish pontiff. All that there was left for Francis to do was name the date for this weekend’s ceremony.
Francis has signaled no major doctrinal departures from his predecessors. “I am a son of the church,” he has declared. But he has repeatedly demonstrated a different set of priorities, preferring mercy over moralizing and inclusion over dogmatic rigidity.
Some suggest that this is just a matter of style. The Vatican expert John Allen has used a vivid musical metaphor to characterize the differences: John Paul was a heavy-metal kind of pope, Benedict XVI a classical music pontiff and Francis is a folk musician. But on one particular issue there is more of a difference between the Polish and Argentine popes than between Black Sabbath and Saints Peter, Paul and Mary.
The key divergence lies in their attitude toward the Second Vatican Council, the event that revolutionized Catholicism in the 1960s, transforming a church focused on its internal sacramental life into one open to the outside world. For two decades, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to row back on what they saw as excessive change in a church driven by liberals acting in “the spirit of Vatican II.” To counter that, John Paul spoke of a “culture of death” that attacked modern attitudes to abortion and contraception; Benedict warned constantly about “moral relativism.” As a result, many in the church felt marginalized by the increasing conservatism of these two pontificates.
By contrast, Francis embraces a culture of life. He has declared that there can be “no turning back the clock” on Vatican II and its changes; indeed, he said, it has not gone far enough. All that explains why he has decided to pair the canonization of the Polish conservative with that of John XXIII, the Italian pontiff who launched Vatican II. Francis has even decided to waive the need for a second miracle: The church generally requires two miracle cures before someone can be declared a saint, and so far only one has been credited to the man Italians call Good Pope John.
Anyone familiar with the history of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, before he became Pope Francis, will not be surprised by his astute balancing act. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was a shrewd politician as well as an inclusive pastor. In coupling the two papal canonizations, he is signaling to conservatives and liberals alike that no one should be excluded from the church’s embrace.
Even so, his actions have demonstrated very publicly how politicized saint-making has become, a process that risks devaluing the idea that saints are above all role models for how ordinary people should live a holy life. For the first 1,000 years of church history, saints were created by the popular acclamation of ordinary folk making pilgrimages to their tombs. From the 11th century onward, Rome took control of the process to ensure the orthodoxy as well as the sanctity of individual saints. That politicization has become even more evident in recent times, and the whole system of edification has become distinctly unedifying.
Thus Josemaría Escrivá, founder of the conservative movement Opus Dei, was made a saint in record time under John Paul, who so favored Opus Dei that he removed the group from the control of local bishops. Escrivá’s canonization came despite allegations that he was an ill-tempered, authoritarian misogynist.
Yet, at the same time, sainthood was obstructed for the martyred archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot and killed at the altar as he said Mass in San Salvador in 1980. He had angered the military in El Salvador by urging soldiers to refuse to obey orders to murder political opponents. John Paul blocked Romero’s cause because it was backed by left-wingers of whom the anti-Communist pope was suspicious.
In some ways Pope John Paul II improved saint-making. He canonized many lay women and men, not just ordained priests, creating a staggering 483 saints — more than all his predecessors in the previous 500 years. He also created saints from a far greater geographical spread, even among indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Under Francis, the man they call the People’s Pope, you might similarly have expected more saints who are not priests but ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds. All the more so because Francis has inveighed on several occasions that clericalism — the exaggerated status of priests — is the scourge of the modern church.
So it is deeply ironic that this weekend the pope will find himself making saints of two men at the very pinnacle of that clerical hierarchy. A double papal canonization has never happened in the church’s 2,000-year history. Francis would be well advised to ensure that it does not happen again.
Paul Vallely is a visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester and the author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.