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.