VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday cleared two of the 20th century's most influential popes to become saints, approving a miracle needed to canonize Pope John Paul II and waiving Vatican rules to honor Pope John XXIII.
It was a remarkable show of papal authority and confirmed Francis' willingness to bend church tradition when it comes to things he cares deeply about. Both popes are also closely identified with the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into modern times, an indication that Francis clearly wants to make a statement about the council's role in shaping the church today.
Francis approved a decree that a Costa Rican woman's inexplicable cure from a deadly brain aneurism was the "miracle" needed to canonize John Paul. More significantly, he decided that John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, could be declared a saint even without a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The Vatican said Francis had the power to dispense with such requirements and could proceed with only one confirmed miracle to John's name.
The ceremony is expected before the end of the year. The date of Dec. 8 has been floated as likely, given it's the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major feast day for the church that honors Mary, to whom both saintly popes were particularly devoted. Polish prelates continue to press for October, to mark the 35th anniversary of the Polish-born John Paul's election, but Vatican officials have suggested that's too soon to organize such a massive event.
The announcement came on a remarkable day melding papacies past and present: It opened with Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attending their first Vatican ceremony together, sitting side-by-side on matching papal chairs for the unveiling of a statue in the Vatican gardens. It continued with the publication of Francis' first encyclical, a meditation on faith that was largely written by Benedict before he retired but was signed by Francis. And it climaxed with Francis' decision to canonize two other predecessors.
Each event, historic on its own, would have captured headlines. But the canonization announcement capped them all, reflecting the priorities of this unique pontificate that has already broken so many rules and traditions, from Francis' decision to shun papal vestments to his housing arrangements, living in the Vatican hotel rather than the stuffy Apostolic Palace.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican analyst, said the decision to canonize both popes was a "brilliant move to unify the church," given that each pope has his own admirers and critics.
"With the joint announcement, Pope Francis is saying we do not have to choose between popes, we can honor and revere both as holy men who served the church well in their times," he wrote on his blog for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper.
Vatican II, which John XXIII opened a year before his 1963 death, opened the church to people of other faiths and allowed for Mass to be celebrated in the languages of the faithful, rather than Latin. In the years since it closed in 1965, though, it has become a source of division in the church, with critics blaming a faulty interpretation of Vatican II's true meaning on the fall in priestly vocations and the "crisis" in the church today.
To anyone who has been paying attention, Francis' decision to canonize John Paul and John XXIII should come as no surprise: The Jesuit was made a cardinal by John Paul, who attended Vatican II, and is very much a priest of John's legacy.
On the anniversary of John Paul's death this year, Francis prayed at the tombs of both John Paul and John XXIII — an indication that he sees a great personal and spiritual continuity in them.
"Two different popes, very important to the church, will be announced saint together - it's a beautiful gesture," said the Rev. Jozef Kloch, spokesman for Poland's Catholic bishops, who like most Poles was overjoyed by the news of John Paul's impending canonization but impatient to know the date.
Francis will set the date at an upcoming meeting of cardinals.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that the miracle that brought John Paul to the ranks of saints concerned a Costa Rican woman, Floribeth Mora, who on Friday broke months of silence to tell her story in public, surrounded by her family, doctors and church officials at a news conference in the archbishop's residence in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A tearful Mora described how she awoke at her home in Dulce Nombre de Tres Rios, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the capital, on April 8, 2011 with a debilitating headache that sent her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with having suffered a cerebral aneurism in the right side of her brain.
Doctors decided they couldn't operate because the area was inaccessible.
"With an open operation or an endovascular intervention, the risk to Floribeth would have been to die or be left with a significant neurological deficit," her doctor, Dr. Alejandro Vargas, told reporters.
She was sent home with painkillers.
"I returned home with the fear that I was going to die," Mora said.
Nevertheless, a few days later, she insisted on participating in a religious procession during which she said she received a sign that she would be healed. The family decided to build a shrine to John Paul outside their home: a colorful altar with a photo of the late pope next to a statue of the Madonna and surrounded by flowers, candles and Christmas lights.
On the day John Paul was beatified, May 1, 2011, Mora said she insisted on watching the Mass, which drew some 1.5 million people to St. Peter's Square and the streets around it.
"I contemplated the photo of the Holy Father with his arms extended and I fixed my eyes on him," she said. "In this moment, I heard a voice tell me 'get up, don't be afraid,' and I could only say 'Yes, I'm going to get up.'"
She said her family was shocked to see her get out of bed. "I was afraid to tell my husband, because he was going to think I was crazy or on drugs. But I got up from bed, and I am here before you, healthy," she said.
Medical tests confirmed that the aneurism had disappeared, Vargas said. "It's the first time I've seen anything like it," he said, showing the before and after images of the hemorrhage.
John Paul, who was pope from 1978-2005, revolutionized the papacy, traveling the world and inspiring a generation of young Catholics to be excited about their faith. He was the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian in 455 years — a legacy that continued with the German-born Benedict XVI and Argentine Francis.
John XXIII, dubbed the "good pope" for his affable nature, is best known for having convened Vatican II, sensing that the time was ripe for a renewal of the church. But he has fallen from favor among conservatives who blame Vatican II for the church's problems today.
Benedict spent much of his pontificate trying to correct what he considered wrong interpretations of Vatican II, insisting it wasn't the break from the past that liberals believed.
While not disagreeing outright with Benedict, Francis seems to take a more progressive read of Vatican II and its call to go out into the world and spread the faith — a priority he has shown in the first months of his pontificate.
The two living popes, however, clearly get along.
"Your holiness, good day and thank you!" Francis beamed on Friday as he greeted Benedict in the Vatican gardens for the unveiling of the statue. Benedict, 86, appeared in good form, walking slowly but on his own and greeting well-wishers.
The Vatican's complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify a "miracle" was performed through the intercession of the candidate — a medically inexplicable cure that is lasting, immediate and can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his John Paul's death. Benedict was responding to chants of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately" which erupted during John Paul's funeral.
There has been some concern that the process has been too quick. Some of the Holy See's deep-seated problems — clerical sex abuse, dysfunctional governance and more recently the financial scandals at the Vatican bank — essentially date from shortcomings of his pontificate.
Thus the decision to canonize John Paul along with John XXIII can be seen as trying to balance those concerns, as well as the shortcomings of each pope.
Such was the case in 2000, when John Paul beatified John XXIII, dubbed the "good pope," alongside Pope Pius IX, who was criticized by Jews for condoning the seizure of a Jewish boy and allegedly referring to Jews as dogs.
As soon as the announcement was made, John Paul's critics came out: Juan Vaca, one of the victims of notorious pedophile priest the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, said the decision to canonize John Paul was "appalling and shocking" given the thousands of victims of sex abuse who were ignored under his 27-year pontificate.
The Vatican has argued that sainthood cases are based on the record of the person, not the pontificate.
Asked how John XXIII, elected in 1958, could be canonized without a second miracle, the Vatican spokesman insisted that many theologians believe that a second miracle isn't required. He said Francis had approved a decision by the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican's saint-making office.
"Certainly the pope has the power, in a certain sense, to dispense of the second miracle in a cause, and this is what happened," Lombardi said.
He stressed that this decision didn't represent any relaxing of the Vatican's overall standards for canonization, but represented a unique situation, given that the church this year is marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.
"John XXIII is someone who we know is beloved in the church, we're in the 50th anniversary of the Council which he started, and I don't think any of us have any doubts about his virtues," Lombardi said.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's longtime secretary, was clearly pleased that his pope would finally be made a saint.
"John Paul II's holiness was simple, humble, of service," Dziwisz wrote in Friday's Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. "He lived for God and brought others to God."