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(Photo credit: Public Catholic)

By Marjorie Jeffrey (@MarjorieJeffrey)

In case you missed it during what was, for some, a long weekend, on this past Friday Pope Francis released his very first Papal Encyclical, Lumen Fidei. The release came alongside the approval for canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II. This announcement had been anxiously awaited, and was made public alongside the approval of the second miracle needed for his canonization.

What was wholly unexpected was the simultaneous announcement of the approval for canonization of Blessed Pope John XXIII. Why so unexpected? Because there has been no second miracle approved (or even considered) for John XXIII, and this is usually a requirement for canonization.

Vatican Radio reported on the explanation given by Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., Vatican spokesperson:

This slightly unusual gesture was explained by Fr. Lombardi who told journalists that despite the absence of a second miracle it was the Pope’s will that the Sainthood of the great Pope of the Second Vatican Council be recognized.

Fr. Lombardi stated that a canonization without a second miracle is still valid, given that there is already the existing miracle that lead to the Roncalli Pope’s beatification. He also pointed to ongoing discussions among theologians and experts about whether it is necessary to have two distinct miracles for beatification and canonization. Certainly, he added the Pope has the power to dispense, in a Cause, with the second miracle.

While much of the media’s attention has been devoted to the canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II, slightly less has been paid to the anomaly of the canonization of Blessed Pope John XXIII. For the mainstream media, the reason for this is obvious – “We remember JPII, but who is this other guy?” On the other hand, the majority of the Catholic blogosphere has been ecstatic about both upcoming canonizations.

It should be noted that it is not unprecedented for a Pope to waive the requirement for a second miracle – indeed, Pope John XXIII was himself the last Pope to do so. But John XXIII is a controversial figure in traditional Catholic circles. The dismissive explanation given by Fr. Lombardi was that “no one doubts his virtues.” That’s a noble line, but it isn’t entirely true.

Indeed, some could view this as a kind of slap in the face, both to traditional Catholics and those estranged from the Church because of Vatican II. Pope Benedict, for example, strove for reconciliation with the schismatic group, the Society of Pius X, throughout his pontificate. Pope Francis’ priorities seem to lie in a different direction: the canonization of Pope John XXIII, particularly in such an un-traditional manner, could be construed as simply “making a statement”. This is probably a harsh view, and one derided by some as that of right-wing ideologues. A more positive light on this dual canonization might be shed; by canonizing both John XXIII and John Paul II together, the message is intended to be one of reconciliation. While Pope John XXIII was responsible for instigating and convening the Second Vatican Council (which is still considered by many Catholics to have been disastrous, at least in its aftermath), Pope John Paul II went to great lengths in the course of his long pontificate to reestablish order in the Church. (Though not all conservative Catholics are uncritical of JPII.) Announcing these two canonizations at the same time is certainly meant to send a message, whatever message that may be. John Thavis’ explanation was as follows:

There are several likely reasons for waiving the second miracle requirement for the canonization of Pope John XXIII, and the first is timing. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, noted the ongoing 50th anniversary of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. The spokesman added that John XXIII was much loved throughout the church, and that “none of us has any doubts about John XXIII’s virtues.”

It’s hard to believe that this decision does not reflect Pope Francis’ priorities, and his eagerness to revitalize the spirit of dialogue and interaction with the world that was characteristic of Vatican II and John XXIII.

What does it mean to be declared a saint? Well, as summarized by Leah Libresco:

I should pause to correct a common misconception about sainthood: the Vatican does not cause anyone to be a saint (which simply means a soul who is in Heaven).  Canonizations are meant as a public recognition that someone is a saint.  There are plenty of saints who are not known to be saints, but public acknowledgement is meant to be a special grace for the living, so we have a diverse set of people to pattern our lives on and seek out for solace.  The popes are or are not saints, regardless of where the canonization process on earth is. [Links added.]

It is generally held among theologians that the Pope is infallible on the question of canonization (though not beatification). The Church used to require four miracles for canonization, until Pope John Paul II reduced it to two in 1983. But sainthood is a weighty thing. Though someone may very well be a saint, the Church has always required proofs of sanctity for a reason. There may be thousands of unknown saints, but we canonize only the few whose sanctity and exercise of heroic virtue are indisputable. The original saints of the early Church were almost exclusively martyrs, and it was not until the 4th century that Church hierarchy approved the honoring of non-martyrs, or “confessors”.

The rush to canonization of both Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Pope John XXIII may be entirely justified, but it discomfits this troglodyte. The Church is not about convenience or immediacy or sainthood on demand. The certainty of the Holy Father carries great weight, but the demand for “Santo Subito” reeks of the desire for immediacy so ingrained in modern life.

Regardless of my own misgivings about the rapidity of this development, what Pope Francis is trying to do may be a worthy goal: that is, to transform the meaning of the Council.

Blessed Pope John XXIII is honored by various Protestant communions, including the Episcopal Church and the extended Anglican communion, contributing to his reputation among traditionalists as a modernist.  John XXIII was responsible for convening the Second Vatican Council – this is so. However, he himself was a liturgical traditionalist, and did not sign any of the documents that emerged from Vatican II. One can assume from reports of his last days that he was quite dismayed with the manipulation of the Council by progressive forces, and by what many would later call “the spirit of Vatican II”. A long circulated rumor (of which I can find no proof or disproof) is that his last words upon his death bed were “Stop the Council! Stop the Council!”

My own interpretation of Pope Francis’ intent is this: perhaps in the vein of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he is wedding Pope John XXIII’s original intent to the “reform of the reform” begun by Pope John Paul II. In other words, he is stating that John XXIII’s intent was one with that of John Paul II. To this extent, it is a transformative political move – but not necessarily a bad one.