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Canonization of the Popes

Diana Steinbauer / re
April 25, 2014

One pontiff is seen as a naive revolutionary and the other as a conservative. But, John XXIII and John Paul II were two outstanding popes and both were canonized on Sunday.

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII (Foto: Martin Athenstädt/dpa)

Originally, he was a compromise candidate. After the nearly 20-year long pontificate of Pius XII it was difficult for the cardinals to find an eligible successor for the papacy. They settled for a transitional solution. They voted for Venice's 77-year old patriarch Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. The stout Roncalli, who had chosen John XXIII as his papal name, radiated calmness, serenity and grace. Even if nobody could have anticipated that this Pope would change the Catholic Church in such a way, the day of his election, October 28, 1958, was still a sign. This day is dedicated to Jude the Apostle. Believers call on him when they have a sheer unsolvable or impossible request.

John XXIII - A people's pope

John XXIII was born in 1881 in the province of Bergamo in the Lombardy region of northern Italy as the son of a farmer. Despite his extraordinary career in the church, the authoritarian and ecclesiastical aloofness of many of his fellow priests always remained alien to him. Instead, he sought community, conversation and accommodation - and that on a grand scale. In short, after his election he announced - to the surprise of many cardinals - the convening of a Second Vatican Council, which was then solemnly opened in Rome on October 11, 1962.

Pope John XXIII (Foto: dpa)
Pope John XXIII launched reforms in the Catholic ChurchImage: picture-alliance/dpa

'Update' of the church - the Second Vatican Council

The renewal, the update (aggiornamento) of the Church, was the aim of the gathering. He invited representatives of all churches: the inception of the ecumenical dialogue - a milestone in the 2,000 years of Church history.

The four sessions of the Council lasted until December,1965. They results of the Council were a reform of the liturgy, which since then has allowed believers around the world to celebrate the service in their mother tongue, a new understanding of the church, which emphasized the role of the lay people in the church and the “common priesthood” of all baptized Christians as well as more openness to the outside world.

But, John did not live to see the results of his reforms. He died of cancer on June 3, 1963.

Priests sitting in St. Peter's Basilica during the Second Vatican Council (Foto: Gerhard Rauchwetter/dpa)
The aim of the Second Vatican Council was more openness in the Catholic ChurchImage: picture-alliance/dpa

John Paul II - a visionary of freedom

John Paul, by contrast, was unknown: When the archbishop of Krakow, Karel Wojtyla, stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and presented himself as the new pope, many - even church experts - did not know him.

But that changed quickly. The charismatic and agile priest from Poland took the masses by storm – those in his church and beyond. The many pastoral trips of the “Hasty Father” as the media dubbed him, contributed to his popularity. One of his papal visits took him to Poland, which at the time was still under communist rule. There, thousands of people cheered him. His call to change the face of the country with the help of the Holy Spirit unleashed a storm that ultimately led to the collapse of the communist regime in Poland and the entire eastern bloc.

The experience of deprivation and war

John Paul II was shaped by the experience of his youth in a German-occupied and war-torn country and then later by the oppression he experienced under Poland's communist rulers. Even after the unification of Europe he remained an admonisher for human rights, an advocator of social reform and a critic of consumerism and deteriorating values.

Darling of the masses or conservative hardliner

John Paul II was conservative. Despite stressing the role of women for spiritual life, he refused to alllow them to join the priesthood. He showed critics their limits and often deprived them of their ecclesiastical teaching permission. In the 1990s, he forced Germany's bishops to withdraw from the country's state-run system of pregnancy counseling.

John Paul II (Foto: Gianni Ferrari/ Cover/Getty Images)
John Paul II was very popular among the believers, partially due to his many pastoral tripsImage: Getty Images

Elsewhere, he put his mark on the future. In 1984, he initiated World Youth Day, which has since brought together millions of young people from around the world. In 1986 and 2002 he also invited representatives of all religions to the World Day of Prayer in Assisi. At the beginning of the Holy Year in 2000 it was an outstanding gesture when he asked for forgiveness for the sins which members of the church had committed. He also included the Jewish people and dissidents.

An assassination attempt and public dying

The world could see that he also had some enemies when a Turkish extremist, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot him during an audience on St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981. John Paul II narrowly escaped death and during the 1990s had to undergo several operations to deal with lingering problems. Furthermore, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which increasingly impaired his health. He did not hide his illness. The entire world took part in his suffering, and finally, in his dying. Thousands of people waited at St. Peter's Square in Rome and in front of televisions during his last hours. For many people, an era ended when he died on April 2, 2005, after a 26- year pontificate.

Santo subito – fast canonization

John Paul II would have liked to have been canonized together with Pope John XXIII on the Second Sunday, or Octave Day, of Easter (this year: 27.04.2014). It was his favorite Sunday in the liturgical year. Two months ago, Pope Francis recognized by decree the miracle needed for the canonization of John Paul II. John XXIII will be canonized without a recognized miracle. That is seen as a clear signal to conservative circles of the Church and a sign of Pope Francis' esteem for John XXIII and the accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council.