Two great popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church on April 27 in front of close to a million enthusiastic spectators.
What made this particular moment even more astonishing was the dual appearance of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Hence, it was a truly a day of four popes. As The Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh succinctly put it, “To have one pope canonize another is remarkable; to have two popes canonize two popes (well, one was looking on, but you see what I mean) is a marvel.”
As I’ve written in the past, I wasn’t born Catholic (my wife is part of the faith), and I’ve been an agnostic Jew for more than 30 years. Yet canonization, much like the history of world religions and the freedom to practice one’s faith in a democratic society, interests me as an impartial observer.
Some people were puzzled by John XXIII’s quick rise to sainthood — and John Paul II’s even more sudden rise. The canonization process can historically take many years, decades and sometimes centuries to fully achieve.
At the same time, the basic requirement of two attributed miracles is often very difficult to confirm. It can, therefore, be left open to either interpretation or re-evaluation. In the case of John XXIII, for example, the need for a second miracle was bypassed by Pope Francis in favor of his predecessor’s role in opening the Second Vatican Council.
Was this fair or justified? Some argued that it established a severe break with liturgical teachings. Others felt it should be left up to the pope’s discretion — and his senior advisers — to make this final decision on behalf of the faith.
From my standpoint, John XXIII and John Paul II both deserved to become saints.
John XXIII’s papacy was rather short (1958-1963), but he accomplished a great deal during this time. In particular, his decision to call Vatican II helped modernize Roman Catholicism and improved the church’s relations with many groups across the world.
The Jewish community certainly appreciated John XXIII’s unique approach. This was the pope who demanded the removal of the Latin word “perfidis” (faithless) from the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews. His support for better Catholic-Jewish relations also led to “Nostra Aetate,” the 1965 document that repudiates anti-Semitism and rejects the notion that Jews are to blame for Jesus’ death.
John XXIII also issued the important 1962 “Roman Missal,” which was praised by Benedict XVI. He even offered to mediate between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to resolve the Cuban missile crisis — and was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for his generous proposal.
While there’s little doubt that John XXIII was an influential pope, John Paul II was equally so.
John Paul II’s papacy was long (1978-2005) and incredibly successful. He played a vital role in international affairs, significantly improved relations with many world faiths, treasured the principles of Vatican II and was a positive inspiration for young Catholics.
For example, he went much further than John XXIII in building long-lasting bridges with Jews. The pontiff had many great Jewish friends in Poland, including Jerzy Kluger, who helped him establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. John Paul II also became the first pope to visit a synagogue, travel to Israel, visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust archives, go to Auschwitz and call the Holocaust a “horrible genocide.” He considered Jews as being “our elder brothers,” and many reciprocated with deep affection and mutual respect.
He maintained good relations with the Church of England, Eastern Orthodox Church, Lutheran and Protestant churches, and met the Dalai Lama on eight separate occasions.
Moreover, John Paul II played a significant role behind the scenes — with President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — in bringing down communism.