The faithful gathered early to get good seats to see Pope Francis elevate John XXIII and John Paul II to sainthood. Emilio Morenatti • AP

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Photos of Pope John Paul II, top left, and Pope John XXIII, graced St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Saturday. Nuns, clergy and other faithful gathered in Rome to attend Sunday’s ceremony.

Alessandra Tarantino • AP,

Priests sang and danced Saturday in St. Peter’s Square ahead of Sunday’s solemn sainthood ceremony.

Emilio Morenatti • Associated Press,

2 popes, 2 legacies, 2 saints

  • Article by: Jim Yardley
  • New York Times
  • April 27, 2014 - 12:42 AM

– Pope John XXIII was the rotund Italian pontiff with a common touch, who told jokes, embraced the poor and became beloved as “the Good Pope.” To many liberal Catholics, he is still revered for the Second Vatican Council, the landmark event of the 1960s that sought to move the Roman Catholic Church into the modern age.

Pope John Paul II was the charismatic Polish pontiff who liked to sneak away from the Vatican to ski and who retooled the papacy in a new era of ­globalized media. His vision of a more rigid Catholicism made him a revered ­figure among many conservative Catholics suspicious of the liberalizing spirit introduced by John XXIII.

“The man who took the lid off and the man who tried to put it back on,” said Eamon Duffy, a professor of the ­history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge.

First of its kind

Now a new pope, Francis, is making his most public attempt to sew together the two men’s different legacies as he pushes his own vision of a church under a big tent. Francis will preside Sunday over a first-of-its-kind joint canonization of the former popes, both iconic figures in the 20th-century church who will be elevated to sainthood during a mass at St. Peter’s Square.

For Francis, who has spent the first year of his papacy straddling the divisions within the church, this twinning allows him to deftly avoid elevating one man over the other and serves his broader agenda of de-emphasizing ideological battles as he tries to renew excitement among the faithful and reverse a steady decline in church attendance.

“The Catholic Church is big enough to encompass the devotees of John XXIII and John Paul II,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “That is the message he is sending.”

Unquestionably, the pairing has transformed the mass into a global media event. Huge crowds are pouring into Rome, with estimates that hundreds of thousands of people — possibly more than 2 million — will fill St. Peter’s Square or watch the ceremony on more than a dozen large screens erected in piazzas across Rome. Portraits of both former popes have been draped on St. Peter’s Basilica, and souvenir shops are selling canonization trinkets.

“We love both popes,” said Antonio Rossi, 31, a teacher from Naples who walked with his girlfriend around the square Friday. “They are two figures who left a great mark on the Catholic Church. What is important is that they both become saints, because that is how I perceive them in my life.”

Vatican officials have played down the political subtext of the ceremony, arguing that reducing the two former popes to a left-right political shorthand is inaccurate and cheapens what for many Catholics is a joyous and deeply spiritual moment. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, who is working with the Vatican press office for the ceremony, disagreed with those who see the ceremony as a calculated gesture of reconciliation.

“Some would say that, but I wouldn’t go that far,” Rosica said. “We don’t use something like this to do that.”

Debate about canonization

Without question, though, the event has stirred considerable debate among many Catholics, about the process of canonizing saints and about the legacies of the two former popes, especially John Paul. He is regarded as a defining figure of the 20th century, revered for his fight against Communism in Eastern Europe and admired by many for how he endured suffering during his long public illness before his death in 2005.

But posthumously, criticism of his papacy has sharpened, for how his retrenchment of church power to the Vatican ultimately led to scandals, and for his failure to confront the clerical sexual abuse scandal, even as evidence mounted of a widespread crisis. Some critics argue that his canonization has been wrongly fast-tracked or should not happen at all. Advocates for sexual abuse victims have come to Rome to protest.

At a Vatican news conference Friday, John Paul’s former spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, defended the former pope’s record on the response to the sexual abuse scandals and argued that the “purity of his thought” had made it difficult for the pontiff to accept that priests could abuse ­children. He also said John Paul had taken steps to address the crisis, even as ­critics have called them grossly inadequate.

Even some who are critical of John Paul’s record on the sexual abuse crisis say it does not negate his worthiness for canonization, since sainthood is not conferred as a statement of perfection in life but rather for holiness. And his selection is certainly popular among many Catholics, for whom John Paul is the man who spread the faith across the world as he visited more than 120 countries during a 27-year papacy.

“John Paul II is the pope I relate to,” said Gabriel Marcos, 29, a business student in Paris who came to Rome with a group of French Catholics. “He’s the pope from my childhood.”

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