John XXIII and John Paul II, united in heaven

This story appears in the Papal canonizations feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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As everyone in the Catholic church gets ready to celebrate the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, I feel like a party pooper because I think canonizing popes is a dumb idea.

Saints are supposed to be models of sanctity for Christians to imitate, but who can a pope be a model for except another pope? And that is exactly the problem.

I fear that the people pushing hardest for the canonization of a pope want him made a saint so he can be presented as the ideal pope that future popes should imitate. It is more about church politics than sanctity.

Making a pope a saint is a way of strengthening his legacy, making it more difficult for future popes to change policies that he put in place. "How can you dare to change what St. Whoever established?"

This is the same motivation behind adding "the Great" to a pope's name. For example, some John Paul supporters argued at his death that his writings would guide the church for the rest of the 21st century. In fact, the shelf-life of most papal documents expires shortly after their papacies. This is as it should be because each new pope must be guided by the Spirit to respond to the needs of his time.

The decision to canonize Popes John XXIII and John Paul II together was a personal decision by Pope Francis, and it epitomizes his vision of the church as a reconciler.

When the people in charge of canonizations told him that John Paul was ready for canonization and asked him when he wanted to schedule it, his response was, what about John XXIII? They pointed out that John had only one miracle and that two miracles were required for the canonization of someone who was not a martyr.

But that did not bother Pope Francis. What is the point of being pope if you can't break a few rules? He waived the requirement of a second miracle, just as he had earlier for the canonization of his favorite Jesuit, Peter Faber.

Pope Francis probably knew that there was an extensive discussion of the miracle requirement prior to the revision of the canonization process in 1983. Jesuit Fr. Peter Gumpel, the leading church expert on the process, wanted to eliminate the requirement for any miracle.

Pope Francis also knew that there are some progressive Catholics who idolize John XXIII but have reservations about John Paul II, while some conservative Catholics feel exactly the opposite. Canonizing popes can be politically divisive in the church when it is an attempt by one faction to impose its model of the papacy on the future by bolstering the legacy of its favorite pope.

But Francis' solution is brilliant: Canonize both popes at the same time. By canonizing them together, Pope Francis is saying that all Catholics should be able to come together to celebrate the lives of these holy men. And since the men are so different, it does not canonize either model of being pope. It leaves him free to follow his own path. 

Pope Francis is fighting the same divisions that St. Paul faced in Corinth, where some would say, "I belong to Paul," and others, "I belong to Apollos" or "Cephas."

"I am a John Paul Catholic." "I am a John XXIII Catholic." St. Paul points out that they are simply "ministers through whom you became believers." "Paul or Apollos or Cephas ... all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God." 

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We should be able to come together as one family both to celebrate and to work for the common good.

Both popes changed the course of history, affecting both the church and the world. Pope John's encyclicals Mater et Magister and Pacem in Terris emphasized the church's role in justice and peace. His calling of the Second Vatican Council began the reforms that brought the church into the modern world.

I am old enough to remember the Latin liturgy and the days when we referred to Protestants as heretics rather than separated brothers and sisters. These things changed because of Pope John. Both John and John Paul improved relations between Catholics and Jews, a breach that had lasted for centuries.

I also remember the days of the Cold War, when we had a good chance of blowing up the world in a nuclear war. John Paul's support for the Solidarity movement in Poland began the avalanche that swept communism from Eastern Europe and ultimately brought down the Soviet empire.

For most Catholics, John XXIII is a very distant memory or someone they learned about in history books. He reigned for less than five years as opposed to John Paul's almost 27 years.

That both men are in heaven, I have no doubt. But they both had their failings. Both popes failed to reform the Roman Curia. John issued a document requiring that seminary classes be taught in Latin, one of the most ignored papal mandates of modern times.

And while John Paul changed history for the better by helping to bring down communism, his impact on the church was not as positive. True, his papal visits encouraged and defended local churches, but his episcopal appointments prized loyalty over competence and pastoral skills. And his suppression of theological debate and discussion caused division rather than unity and stifled creativity.

But most Catholics are not caught up in these debates. They like both popes. As Catholics, we believe that these saints are in heaven. We do not believe they lived perfect lives. Saints can be sinners and do stupid things. Knowing that they were not perfect in fact gives us hope.

Thirty years from now, another pope will preside over another double canonization, that for Blessed Benedict XVI and Blessed Francis I (yes, there will be a Francis II). I will not be around to be a party pooper, but if I am in heaven, I promise to organize a party for all these popes who, I am sure, will get a good laugh out of it. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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