Sainthood for John Paul II, John XXIII prompts celebration and debate for Catholics

A major event in modern Catholic history is taking place this weekend in Rome, with two recent popes — John Paul II and John XXIII — being officially made saints. For Catholics in Washington and elsewhere, this means one thing: a huge debate about what it all really means.

The saint-making process is of course rich with fodder for discussion: Do Catholics really believe in miracles, such as the ones historically required for people to become saints? What place does the supernatural play in modern-day life?

But many of the discussions revolve around the two men and their roles in a complex period of significant change in the church.

Many experts see the men as representing two very different emphases in Catholicism, almost the liberal and conservative poles. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, which opened the church to the modern world in matters including ecumenism, worship styles and discussion of human reproduction. John Paul took the opening from Vatican II and plunged the church into global evangelization, but his focus on loyalty, hierarchy and orthodoxy on marriage and reproduction alarmed many on the more liberal side.

When Pope Francis canonizes the two popes Sunday, “he will send a powerful message of unity,” according to John Gehring, a progressive Catholic advocate, and Kim Daniels, founder of the more traditional group Catholic Voices USA, in a joint piece published in the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s time to reject the assumptions built into reductionist labels.”

They note that Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley recently characterized immigration reform in abortion-like terms — calling the protection of migrants a “pro-life issue” — and that Francis, even as he urges Catholics not to focus only on abortion, recently reminded them to think of it as an “unspeakable crime.”

Richard Spinello, who teaches a course on John Paul II at Boston College, emphasized the Polish pope’s role in bringing down communism.

The Rev. James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College, said the canonization of these two men underscores a specific message: Catholicism doesn’t have an explicit policy plan. It also doesn’t mean the men were perfect, he said. “At the most basic minimalist understanding, canonization is the Church’s proclamation that . . .the individual is in union with God” and that the two men, as different as they were, are both in heaven.

George Weigel, a prominent papal biographer, said the two popes’ lives are “bookends” of modern Catholicism. John XXIII launched Vatican II, and John Paul put the ideas into play. “A lot of the contemporary history of the Catholic Church is summed up in these lives,” he said.

Certainly many Catholics will mark the canonizations by sitting around the kitchen table this weekend debating the above. But to many, the weekend is a time of prayer.

In the Washington area, a key spot will be the National Shrine of Blessed John Paul II, which as of Sunday will be renamed the National Shrine of St. John Paul II. Events will be held at the Northeast D.C. shrine throughout Saturday night, including prayer at the “relic” of John Paul, a bloodied scrap of clothing from the 1981 attempt to assassinate him. There will be music and confessions through the night at the shrine, where people will be watching the canonizations taking place in Rome.

Seminarians at the Blessed John Paul II Seminary, also in Northeast D.C., will hold a watch party beginning at 3:30 a.m., as well. In Virginia, at least two parishes are marking the canonization by celebrating a love of John Paul: soccer. St. Leo the Great and St. Mary of Sorrows, both in Fairfax, will have their youth programs focused on soccer. St Leo’s game is Saturday, and St. Mary of Sorrows’ is Sunday

Meanwhile, courtesy of Matthew Bunson, a Catholic theologian, historian and journalist for Our Sunday Visitor who wrote “The Encyclopedia of Saints,” here are some fun saint facts to fuel your own canonization weekend discussions:

• The first officially canonized saint was Ulrich of Augsburg, canonized in 993 by Pope John XV.

• The Roman Martyrology, the official listing of saints, boasts 47 saints named Felix, including three popes.

• Eighty popes have been canonized, including John XXIII and John Paul II, out of a total of 265 popes.

• The first 35 popes were all saints; the streak ended with the controversial Pope Liberius (who died in 366).

• Three popes of the 20th century are now saints – Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul II; three others have causes open for their possible canonization.

• The crowd expected in Rome on Sunday will be the largest ever for a canonization; the second-largest crowds attended the canonizations of Padre Pio and Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, both in 2002, with crowds estimated at 300,000 to 350,000.

• There has never been a canonization of two popes in the same ceremony until that of John XXIII and John Paul II.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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