Anna Nguyen saw Pope John Paul II up close twice before his death, and both times she felt electrified, overcome with emotion to be near someone who to her possessed an aura of pure holiness.
On Monday, Nguyen tried to experience that feeling again, traveling from Annandale to Northeast Washington to pray before a scrap of the charismatic pope’s blood-stained cassock.
Nguyen cried and trembled as she spoke at the Blessed John Paul II Shrine, a museum and worship space near Catholic University. The mother and retired clerical worker was among those moved by the news earlier in the day that Pope Francis had set a date to make saints of John Paul II and Pope John XXIII, who was pontiff from 1958 to 1963. The ceremony and Mass will be April 27 and are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Rome.
A hint Monday by the Vatican spokesman that Pope Benedict XVI might also participate charged the Catholic blogosphere about the potential for a first: two popes participating in a Mass together.
Francis’s announcement this summer that the two men would be canonized began a global conversation among Catholics and in the media about the dramatic legacies of John XXIII and John Paul II.
John XXIII convened the modernizing Second Vatican Council, which empowered laypeople and changed everything from the language of Catholic prayer to the church’s relationship with other faiths. John Paul II became the first celebrity pope in history during his decades of service (1978-2005), traveling widely, launching massive youth events and helping bring down communism in Europe.
For his role in calling the council, John XXIII is a hero to many in the church’s more liberal wing, while more traditional Catholics often credit John Paul II with protecting orthodox doctrine on sex and reproduction through the bishops and cardinals he picked.
But for many regular Catholics, the naming of a saint — even a pope or two — is about something more intimate than politics or policy. It’s a chance to celebrate holiness embodied in the life of another human being.
“It’s something I can’t explain to you,” said Nguyen, who came with five other Vietnamese-born friends from her Virginia prayer group to the shrine. She thought the canonization was confirmation of John Paul II’s ability to intercede for her in heaven. Outside the shrine’s chapel, she described praying for her injured leg, for her priest-brother and most intently for her spiritual improvement.
“I said: ‘I still have flaws! Please, Jesus, change me!’ ” said Nguyen, her eyes welling up as she clasped her hands to her chest. “Today, I opened everything!”
As she pushed her mother in a wheelchair, Mary Anh-Tuyet Nguyen, a retired postal worker from Burke, called Pope John Paul II “a great man [who] brings hope and inspiration. “He introduced us to the God of mercy,” she said. “He is a man of God.”
The shrine held special prayer sessions all day to honor the setting of the April Mass dates. It typically takes out the piece of bloodied cassock only after midday Mass as a holy relic Catholics can venerate, or pray before, as a personal item from someone close to God. But the shrine kept it out most of Monday, encased in a silver cross-shaped vessel, so that people could come spontaneously to pray before it.
The visitors’ focus on John Paul II’s closeness to God, and not his actions as pope, reflects the values of the canonization process. The Vatican body charged with investigating the “causes” — or cases — of potential saints is supposed to look into candidates’ spiritual depth, not their actions — even if those actions included helping to end communism or convening a council that made church theology much more open to other faiths.
So while some church-watchers see the picking of the two men — an unprecedented decision to canonize two popes at the same time — as Francis’s effort to placate Catholicism’s sometimes-divided progressive and conservative wings, experts Monday said politics are not a factor.
Kenneth Woodward, a religion author who has written extensively about Catholic saints, noted that of the many hundreds of people made saints in the past millenniums, only three were popes. Generally, their access to power and money made them seem like unlikely candidates.
“The message here is that even popes can be saints,” he said.
Longtime church chronicler Michael Sean Winters, who blogs for the National Catholic Reporter, noted that some Catholic groups are opposing John Paul II’s canonization because his pontificate included an extensive clergy sex-abuse cover-up.
“I’m not sure the skill set to be a good pope is the same as being a saint, which is about sanctity. I think of sanctity as lacking guile, and it takes some guile to be a pope,” he said. Their canonization “isn’t a verdict on the papacy of either man. Did I think it took incredible courage in the way John Paul faced his Parkinson’s? Yes. Was it good for the papacy to have a pope incapacitated for so long? It was a disaster.”
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, chief executive of the Catholic television network Salt and Light, said Monday that the two popes could be role models for regular Catholics because “they allowed God’s will to be done in their lives on a daily basis,” he wrote in an e-mail. Catholics and others can learn from them “how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the Cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time.”