Pope Francis is expected Monday to announce the date when he will make saints of two of contemporary Catholicism’s most important figures — Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Together, the men ushered the church into modern times by, respectively, calling and then enacting the modernizing Second Vatican Council.
The announcement of the date in Rome on Monday, after a special meeting of cardinals, will set in place what experts predict will be a massive event, probably around Easter. John Paul II, who died in 2005 after 27 years as pope, was a towering global figure, credited with helping bring down communism in Europe. He is beloved especially by Catholic conservatives for affirming traditional church teachings on sexuality and gender, including prohibitions on female priests and contraception.
John XXIII, who died in 1963, is a hero to Catholic liberals for launching the dramatic council that reached out to other faiths and raised the status of laypeople.
Francis had announced in July that both men would become saints, an event that probably will be made even bigger by the popularity of the current pope — a leader many hope will help unify the Catholic Church. The Mass that makes saints of, or canonizes, the men will be held in Rome.
“It’s important to keep in mind the great continuity between these men. They are committed to the message of mercy, compassion, dedicated to young people, to the message of human dignity,” said Patrick Kelly, executive director of the Blessed John Paul II Shrine, a museum and chapel in Northeast Washington.
Various Catholic institutions around the world will probably host events related to the two men in coming months. The shrine plans to extend its hours Monday, for example, with extra worship sessions and an all-day showing of a piece of a blood-stained cassock from a 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul II. Catholics consider this a holy relic, Kelly said, and it is used during worship, or “veneration.”
The shrine will be open until 8:30 p.m. Monday so people can come pray near the relic.
While historically it took centuries for someone to become a saint, many Catholics were calling for John Paul II’s sainthood immediately upon his death. Pope Benedict XVI waived the five-year waiting period usually considered standard before beginning an “investigation.”
Many consider John Paul II to have had a massive effect on ending communism in Europe and credit him with opening up the world’s biggest church to the legitimacy of other faiths. He traveled the world almost constantly, unheard of for previous popes. He is known for his writings deepening Catholic teaching against contraception and abortion, among other things.
Some opposed making John Paul II a saint, saying that he oversaw the church during a period in which clergy child-sex abuse was covered up and later exploded, causing the greatest damage to the church in memory.
In July, Francis approved the work of the Vatican’s saint-making body, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, affirming the second of two miracles required for John Paul II’s sainthood. Spanish newspapers identified it as a case of a sick woman from Costa Rica who was described as being miraculously cured of an aneurysm after praying to John Paul II. The first miracle attributed to John Paul II, — which led to his beatification, the first step toward sainthood — involved a French nun who Vatican medical experts said had miraculously recovered from Parkinson’s disease.
In the case of John XXIII, Francis announced that he was skipping the need for a second miracle.
The process involves the congregation’s small army of consultants, archivists, translators, oncologists and psychologists who examine the medical evidence for reported miracles. They seek evidence for two things in particular: that the person’s life deserves to be imitated and that the person has demonstrated a postmortem ability to help people who pray to them.
John Paul II canonized more people than any pope in history — 482 — but the system has slowed in recent years.
In an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune in the summer, when the dual canonizations were announced, Kenneth L. Woodward, an expert on the saint-making process, said the plan was not simply “an exercise in placating two divergent ideological wings in contemporary Catholicism.”
“Rather by yoking the two popes in a single ceremony, Francis is reminding the rest of the church that the holiness each man manifest in his own way is more important than the papal office they had in common,” he said.