VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday cleared two of the 20th century’s most influential popes to become saints, approving a miracle needed to canonize Pope John Paul II and waiving Vatican rules to honor Pope John XXIII.
It was a remarkable show of papal authority and confirmed Francis’ willingness to bend church tradition when it comes to things he cares deeply about. Both popes are also identified with the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Roman Catholic Church into modern times, an indication that Francis clearly wants to make a statement about the council’s role in shaping the current church.
Francis approved a decree that a Costa Rican woman’s inexplicable cure from a deadly brain aneurysm was the “miracle” needed to canonize John Paul. That added to a nun’s healing from Parkinson’s disease two months after the pontiff’s death.
More significantly, he decided that John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, could be declared a saint even without a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The Vatican said Francis had the power to dispense with such requirements and could proceed with only one confirmed miracle to John’s name.
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The ceremony is expected before the end of the year. The date of Dec. 8 has been floated as likely, because it is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major feast day for the church that honors Mary, to whom both saintly popes were particularly devoted. Polish prelates continue to press for October, to mark the 35th anniversary of the Polish-born John Paul’s election, but Vatican officials have suggested that’s too soon to organize such a massive event.
The announcement came on a remarkable day melding papacies past and present: It opened with Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attending their first Vatican ceremony together, sitting side by side on matching papal chairs for the unveiling of a statue in the Vatican gardens. It continued with the publication of Francis’ first encyclical, a meditation on faith. Benedict had left the draft of the encyclical for his successor and Francis completed it. The day
climaxed with Francis’ decision to canonize two predecessors.
Each event, historic on its own, would have captured headlines. But the canonization announcement capped them all, reflecting the priorities of this pontificate that has already broken with traditions, from Francis’ decision to shun papal vestments to his housing arrangements, living in the Vatican hotel rather than the stuffy Apostolic Palace.
Vatican II was opened by John XXIII — born Angelo Roncalli in Italy — a year before his 1963 death. Many consider the discussions of the council to have led directly to the church’s reforms in the 1960s and ’70s, including the use of vernacular during the liturgy and openness to the modern world. In the years since it closed in 1965, though, it has become a source of division in the church, with critics blaming a faulty interpretation of Vatican II’s true meaning on the fall in priestly vocations and the “crisis” in the church today.
Francis’ decision to canonize John Paul and John XXIII should come as no surprise: The Jesuit was made a cardinal by John Paul — born Karol Wojtyla — who attended Vatican II.
“Two different popes, very important to the church, will be announced saint together; it’s a beautiful gesture,” said the Rev. Jozef Kloch, spokesman for Poland’s Catholic bishops, who like most Poles was overjoyed by the news of John Paul’s impending canonization but impatient to know the date.
Francis will set the date at an upcoming meeting of cardinals.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that the miracle that brought John Paul to the ranks of saints concerned a Costa Rican woman, Floribeth Mora, who Friday told her story at a news conference in the archbishop’s residence in San José, Costa Rica.
Mora described how she awoke at her home in Dulce Nombre de Tres Rios, about 12 miles from the capital, San José, on April 8, 2011, with a debilitating headache that sent her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with having suffered a cerebral aneurysm in the right side of her brain. Doctors decided they couldn’t operate because the area was inaccessible. She was sent home with painkillers, said her physician, Dr. Alejandro Vargas.
A few days later, she participated in a religious procession during which she said she received a sign that she would be healed. The family decided to build a shrine to John Paul outside their home.
On the day John Paul was beatified, May 1, 2011, Mora said she insisted on watching the Mass, which drew some 1.5 million people to St. Peter’s Square and the streets around it. “I contemplated the photo of the Holy Father with his arms extended and I fixed my eyes on him,” she said. “In this moment, I heard a voice tell me: ‘Get up, don’t be afraid,’ and I could only say: ‘Yes, I’m going to get up.’ ”
She added: “I got up from bed, and I am here before you, healthy,” she said.
Medical tests confirmed the aneurysm had disappeared, Vargas said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it,” he said, showing before and after images.
The Vatican’s complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify a “miracle” was performed through the intercession of the candidate, a medically inexplicable cure that is lasting, immediate and can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization.
As soon as Friday’s announcement was made, John Paul’s critics came out: Juan Vaca, a victim of notorious pedophile priest the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, said the decision to canonize John Paul was “appalling and shocking,” given the thousands of victims of sex abuse who were ignored under his 27-year pontificate.
The Vatican has argued that sainthood cases are based on the record of the person, not the pontificate.
Asked how John XXIII, elected in 1958, could be canonized without a second miracle, the Vatican spokesman insisted many theologians believe a second miracle isn’t required. He said Francis had approved a decision by the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican’s saint-making office.
He stressed that this decision didn’t represent any relaxing of the Vatican’s overall standards for canonization but represented a unique situation, given that the church this year is marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.
Javier Cordoba and Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.