Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author of Stalking the Holy: The Politics of Saint-Making.
Making saints is an exclusively pontifical prerogative. Or at least it has been for the past millennium. And on Sunday, it will be exercised with a grand flourish, for on that day, the Feast of the Divine Mercy, two popes will be added to the canon, the list of those declared by the Church of Rome to be officially holy, with all that that implies.
But once shorn of their papal power, Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II are strikingly unalike. Their respective paths to sainthood are splendid examples of the politics of saint-making.
John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) was elected to the papacy at 78, after a long, dramatic and distinguished career in the papal diplomatic service. An historian by training, and an ambassador for the Holy See to several countries, he was patriarch of Venice at the time he was chosen. The cardinal-electors saw him as a transitional pope, likely to rule for a short time, a bridge between Pius XII and the next Roman pontiff, a safe figure, pastoral, affable and compliant.
They misread their man entirely. Roncalli was no caretaker – he knew his mind, judged the church deficient in its ministry to the world and resolved to generate new life in its musty cells. He would call for an ecumenical gathering, the Second Vatican Council, in January, 1959, and by the time the first session was over in the fall of 1962, his days were numbered. He would not live to open the second session.
John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was a young bishop at the council Roncalli convoked, a member of the Polish episcopacy, a philosopher with a poetic bent, a theologian with a taste for the mystical. At 58, he was elected to succeed the doomed John Paul I (Albino Luciani), who died barely a month into office. This time, the cardinals chose to break the mould: They departed from the centuries-old tradition of electing an Italian; they chose to go with a young man; they opted for a bishop with little experience with the Vatican.
In appearance and background, Roncalli and Wojtyla are a study in contrasts. John XXIII was a man of impressive amplitude in both girth and spirit. He loved to kibitz with his aides and he was persuaded that the renewal of the church was an imperative. John Paul II was a master of physical and mental athleticism, a performer who preferred the distance offered by the stage, and he was persuaded that renewal, unchecked, was a threat to the church.
Their respective paths to sainthood were markedly different as well. Roncalli’s cause lumbered along uneventfully, not shelved but not actively pursued either, the lingering memory of an ecclesial era past. Wojtyla’s cause was combustive by comparison, relentlessly pursued by his disciples and fast-tracked by his successor, Benedict XVI.
In many ways, this is not surprising. John Paul’s pontificate lasted more than 27 years and John’s a mere five; John Paul radically changed the saint-making process in 1983, dumped the devil’s advocate and went into overdrive, beatifying and canonizing more candidates than all previous popes combined; John was satisfied with the status quo and looked for reform and renewal in other quarters of church life.
It is one of the more arresting gestures of the current pontiff, Francis (Jorge Bergoglio), a pope who has demonstrated uncanny skill with the art of gesturing, that he would move with alacrity to speed up the process of John’s sainting, twin his canonization with John Paul’s and then create as cardinal Roncalli’s devoted secretary, Loris Capovilla. In these gestures, we can see Bergoglio’s commitment to the renewal ushered in by Roncalli, a renewal more often stymied than invigorated by Wojtyla, a willingness to recognize the spiritual fecundity inherent in the wisdom of the old patriarch, and in so doing validate for eternity the genius of the council itself.
John Paul perfected his craft as saint-maker; he knew that theatre mattered, that the devotional life unhindered by the complexities of modern thought had a role to play in the life of the faithful; it was his way of counteracting the lies embedded in the cult of the personality, the insidious legacy of the totalitarian regimes he had heroically struggled against since his youth.
No surprise, then, that the push for his canonization would begin immediately. The santo subito, the populist call for sainthood now, that erupted with controlled spontaneity in St. Peter’s Square following the final obsequies at his funeral, was inevitable. As bishop of Rome, he had become the bishop of the universal church. His personal magnetism, iron will and uncommon courage sealed his reputation as a figure bigger than life.
Francis reminds us that there is another way of being pope: Roncalli’s way. And that way is now being recovered and exercised by the current pope. On Sunday, Francis is setting the record straight.
Michael Higgins discusses sainthood Friday. April 24, on CBC Radio's Ideas.