In the company of a saint: Catholics gear up for a rare double canonization

Andreas Widmer shakes the hand of Pope John Paul II before leaving the Swiss Guard. "I know a saint," Mr. Widmer said with a laugh. "I'm becoming a secondary relic."Andreas Widmer shakes the hand of Pope John Paul II before leaving the Swiss Guard. “I know a saint,” Mr. Widmer said with a laugh. “I’m becoming a secondary relic.”
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It’s one thing when your boss is honored for a job well done. It’s another when he is made a saint.

Andreas Widmer spent two years at the side of Pope John Paul II as part of the elite papal security force known as the Swiss Guard. On Sunday, he will be one of the thousands of people in Vatican City for the canonization of his mentor.

“I know a saint,” Mr. Widmer said with a laugh. “I’m becoming a secondary relic.”

The Roman Catholic Church will canonize John Paul and Pope John XXIII in a ceremony that Pope Francis said will be simpler and more somber than the 2011 beatification of John Paul. Even reports from heavily Catholic Poland show subdued anticipation for the canonization of one of its most famous native sons.

For sainthood in the Catholic Church, beatification is the first major step and usually requires a miracle attributed to the intercession of the candidate. A second miracle usually is required for canonization to sainthood.

John was elected pope in October 1958 and convened the Second Vatican Council. He died in 1963 and was beatified in 2000 by John Paul II.

John Paul was elected in 1978 and died in 2005. He was beatified in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, who waived the traditional five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.

The two disparate pontiffs are widely considered among the most charismatic and consequential popes of the modern era. Each has left a legacy that has been controversial both inside and beyond the faith.

John’s convention of the Second Vatican Council is credited by many with helping usher Catholicism into the 20th century, with enduring changes to basic rituals and the public face of the 2,000-year-old church.

The energetic John Paul II, the first non-Italian bishop of Rome in more than 400 years, left a more conservative legacy. After surviving a 1981 assassination attempt, he played a central role in global politics that ended the Cold War and brought independence and democracy to his troubled homeland.

Some say the avuncular John went too far with his liberalizing efforts; others say John Paul went too far with his conservative retrenchment.

Despite his global popularity, the Polish pontiff also has critics inside the church and beyond who say he did not do enough in his decades in Rome to address the child abuse scandal that rocked the church in the United States and other countries.

Still, the ceremony Sunday will be a remarkable event for the church.

The Rev. Thomas Worcester, College of the Holy Cross’s history and papacy professor, said a canonization or beatification is rare, and “quite exceptional” with two popes.

Candidates for sainthood “are expected to be suitable role models,” the Jesuit priest said. “A pope is a very strange choice because in some ways only popes can imitate him.”

Mathew Schmalz, a professor at Holy Cross’s Department of Religious Studies, said the canonization also is unusual because only one miracle has been attributed to the intercession of John.

John Paul loosened the standards for sainthood, Mr. Schmalz said. He eliminated the practice of choosing a person to argue against the candidacy — the so-called devil’s advocate — and reduced the number of miracles required for consideration of sainthood.

“Some people rather derisively called the papacy of John Paul II a ‘saint-making factory,’” Mr. Schmalz said.

Father Worcester said early popes were made saints largely because they ended up martyrs.

He acknowledged the stark difference in the timing of the beatifications for the two men: 50 years since John’s death and nine years since John Paul‘s.

“Nine years is very quick,” Father Worcester said. “I realize at his funeral there was shouting of ‘santo subito’ [‘sainthood now’], and there was a popular desire for that. On the other hand there isn’t a need for a rush.”

A matter of time

For Mr. Widmer, the sainthood of John Paul was only a matter of time.

“Humans don’t see into other people’s souls,” Mr. Widmer said. “What [Pope John Paul II] did, he was so focused on trying to see the world as God sees it, that through that, he appealed to something deep within us.”

Mr. Widmer served at the side of John Paul from 1986 to 1988.

“I was there 24 hours a day,” he said. “When he leaves, we leave. You can’t help but watch what he does and how he interacts with you.”

As his duty continued, Mr. Widmer spent more time with the pope and learned about the man behind the scenes.

That meant laughing at whatever was funny to him or sitting down for lunch or a glass of wine with his guards.

“Every time he talked to me, it was like he got up that morning just to talk to me,” Mr. Widmer said. “The presence of this man had nothing to do with religion. He was a truly authentic guy.

“I thought, man, this guy has it figured out,” Mr. Widmer said. “Then he started to say, ‘Well, look, what I have is something anybody can have.’ I started to listen to what he said, his view of faith. He was leading me up on a mountain and seeing for the first time the panorama. He opened up a vista to me, and that floored me.”

Mr. Widmer, 46, is now a practicing Catholic and the director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, Md., with his wife, Michelle, and 9-year-old son, Eli.

They left for Rome on Wednesday and planned to visit religious sites before attending the 7 a.m. Mass on Sunday at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Mr. Widmer said John Paul likely would “get a kick out of” his canonization because it extends his ministry.

“His writing, his life, his thoughts are still not understood fully,” Mr. Widmer said. “The theology of the body, how to understand physical presence — if he dies and then nobody talks about it anymore, it sort of reaches its limit. The fact he is now a saint means this is going to live on.”

The pope he once guarded “was the first person to make sense, to a secular world, to make sense to the 21st century world, to interpret the Christian message. We need somebody like this in every age.”

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