The double canonizations this Sunday of two great popes of the modern era will allow the Church to ponder essential continuities and help heal some of the divisions over the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that followed. The short pontificate (1958-63) of John XXII — known as the ‘Good Pope’ — launched the Council, while the long papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) consolidated an understanding of it that gave the Church a new sense of direction and unity. Because both papacies are icons of ‘progressive’ versus ‘conservative’, experienced church commentators (John Allen here, Francis X Rocca here) see the double canonizations as a call for unity between the two sides.
Even the date — 27 April, Divine Mercy Sunday — links not just the two popes with each other but with Francis too. John XXIII’s famous observation in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council that the modern Church favours ‘the medicine of mercy rather than of severity’, was echoed in John Paul II’s second encyclical, Dives in Misericordiae, a plea for mercy in the modern world; and it was John Paul II who instituted Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope Francis in one of his first interviews announced a “kairos of mercy”, and ‘mercy’ is the watchword of his papacy.
Nineteen heads of state and 24 prime ministers are expected to attend the canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. But it will be a more sober affair than the three-day extravaganza that marked John Paul’s beatification, the last step before sainthood, in 2011. That two popes should be canonised together is a truly remarkable event: although 78 of the 265 popes who have preceded Pope Francis are recognised as saints, all bar five of are from the Church’s first millennium. Since the Church’s canonisation process was centralised in 1588, the only Pope to have been canonised was Pius X, who died in 1914 and was recognised as a saint in 1954.
What makes Sunday’s event unique is also the strong likelihood of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI attending — the first time two popes have been present at a canonisation. (Paul Elie at The Atlantic has a long article pondering the often surprising relationship between the two.) In July last year Francis described his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, largely composed by his predecessor, as “the work of four hands”.
Vast numbers are expected to visit Rome for the canonisation — at least a million pilgrims, with wilder predictions of 5m. Most will watch the ceremony on large screens distributed throughout the city, with many millions more around the world watching on television, or through websites such as Salt and Light and Aleteia, and even in the cinema. The Vatican Television Centre will be working with the likes of Sky and Sony, using up to 33 cameras and 9 satellites – more than were used for the 2014 Sochi Olympics – to broadcast the event, which will be shown in about 500 cinemas around the world, 47 of them in the UK alone.
Catholic Voices will be commenting on Sunday’s historic event both from Rome and in studios in the UK, while giving background in posts on this blog. Follow us on Twitter (@CatholicVoices) for updates.