Pope Francis’ announcement that he had approved making both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII saints simultaneously is the action of a Pope who understands the need to bring a divided Catholic Church together. It’s smart politics because it’s the right thing to do.
I confess to a strong interest here here, since this is the approach I suggested in a column two years ago, when the Vatican expedited the process of making John Paul’s a saint. Here is part of what I wrote in April, 2011:
The Vatican’s decision to speed Pope John Paul II on the road to sainthood aroused great elation among many Catholics — and a backlash among others in the church who see the rush as unseemly. There is an obvious remedy that could bring contending Catholics together and send exactly the right message about the church’s attitude toward the modern world: It’s time to declare Pope John XXIII a saint.
My argument then, and the one that seems to have prevailed in the Vatican, was that there is “a natural link between the two papacies.”
When historians look back, John Paul’s greatest achievements will inevitably be seen as liberal, in the broadest sense: his commitment to human rights and religious liberty, his calls for greater social justice, his embrace of workers’ rights (“the priority of labor over capital”), and his strenuous opposition to religious prejudice. Recall that John Paul was the first pope — not counting St. Peter — to visit a synagogue, where he issued a ringing condemnation of anti-Semitism. None of these achievements would have been possible if Pope John had not ended Catholicism’s war with modernity by calling the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. . . John Paul’s most widely admired acts built on John’s legacy. It’s hard to imagine St. Augustine without St. Paul, Washington without Jefferson, John Paul without John. A church that needs to open windows again would do well to honor the pope who freed it to be refreshed by modernity’s bracing breezes.
It’s a mistake to think of every issue in the Church as breaking down along left-right lines. But on the whole, more conservative Catholics will welcome sainthood for John Paul and more progressive Catholics will welcome sainthood for John XXIII. By lifting up John XXIII with John Paul, Pope Francis has sent an important signal about his commitment to bringing the Church together — and his connection with the legacy of the reforming Second Vatican Council and the papacy of John XXIII.
I will have more to say about this in my regular column on Monday. In the meantime, you can read my earlier column here.