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This Sunday, Pope Francis will elevate two former popes to sainthood: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
While Pope John XXIII is remembered as an icon of the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II is remembered for upholding orthodoxy and doctrine.
Millions of pilgrims are expected to descend upon Rome for the joint canonization, which occurs just one week after the ceremonies of Holy Week.
NPR’s Senior European Correspondent Sylvia Poggioli joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Rome to discuss this weekend’s canonization and the disparate legacies of these two popes.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The world's one billion Catholics will be watching as Pope Francis canonizes two previous popes this Sunday, the first time two popes will be declared saints in the same ceremony, and an historic event for other reasons. John Paul II, who was pope just before the previous Pope Benedict VXI, will hold the record for the fastest saint to be canonized in history.
And some Catholics are questioning whether he should become a saint at all, for failing to take action in the priest sex abuse scandal. Then there's John XXIII, who opened up the church to the modern world in the '60s with Vatican II. He's being elevated to sainthood with evidence of only one miracle, instead of two. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is with us from Rome. Welcome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, it's good to be with you.
YOUNG: And we should say both of these popes, despite some questions, are beloved. Start with John Paul II. He was credited with helping to end communism and reinvigorating the church with global outreach, especially to the youth. When he died, we heard those cries of santo subito, make him a saint immediately. Remind us why he is so loved.
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, first of all John Paul II took the papacy out of Rome. He became a globetrotter. He traveled to every corner of the world. He was the first superstar pope. He had a background as an actor in his youth, so he really knew how to command the stage globally. He understood very well how to use mass media to the benefit of the Catholic Church.
He was basically one of the key figures of the end of the Cold War. He was shot and almost killed by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter's Square, and then John Paul made a dramatic gesture and went to Ali Agca's jail cell in Rome and pardoned his would-be killer. Of course John Paul is credited with helping bringing down communism first in Poland, then the rest of Eastern Europe and later in the Soviet Union.
In some sense he became a spokesman for human rights, denouncing repression in many countries, and he was the first pope to call leaders of all religions to pray together in Assisi. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, the first pope to visit a mosque. And much to the dismay of many in the church, he issued an unprecedented apology for the sins of the church against Jews, against Christian.
He's also seen, however, as the pope who put an end to discussion and imposed a very tough discipline on many issues that had been opened up by the Second Vatican Council, for example on sexual ethics, on liberation theology and married priests. So it's a mixed bag.
YOUNG: Well Barbara Blain(ph) of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the group SNAP, she told the Boston Globe that they think it's sinful for the pope to be made a saint so soon because of the sex abuse scandal. So does the church respond to comments like that?
POGGIOLI: Well, there have been many critics of the canonization of John Paul, as you said about the speed and also for his record on those issues. His defenders say that aides may have kept the information from him. Others believe that John Paul may have believed the charges were a plot and a slander against the church similar to those by communist authorities in Poland, and that may be the reason he simply did not attribute the necessary attention to the sex abuse scandals.
YOUNG: Well, that debate will continue even after this weekend's ceremonies. Let's move to Pope John XXIII. He served from 1958 the '63, an icon of the progressive wing of the church. He launched the reforming Second Vatican Council, opening the church to the modern world. But in this case, Pope Francis waived the required second miracle for his canonization.
Some are saying that this is sort of an olive branch that Pope Francis is holding out to progressive. Remind us more of what John XXIII means to those progressives.
POGGIOLI: Well John XXIII, who is known here in Italy as the Good Pope John, really is a 20th-century giant of the Catholic Church. Here in Italy, it is still very common to see in certain places, you know, in cafes, in bars, there's often a photograph of John XXIII. He really is very dear in the memory of the city.
He was not necessarily a liberal in the modern sense, but he was certainly a man who understood that the church needed to confront itself with the modern world. He was deeply loved for his humanity, his humor and his smarts. And by simply opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962, he set in motion what is perhaps, many say, the most important event in the Catholic Church since the reformation.
He had a very optimistic outlook. In his opening speech, he spoke against the prophets of doom always forecasting disaster. And he had a very enlightened attitude toward leadership. One of his most famous lines was see everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little. And he also had a great reply when asked how many people work at the Vatican, saying about half of them.
YOUNG: But again, we have in the case of one of the popes maybe a speedier canonization, and in the case of John XXIII a canonization without the required two miracles. I have to ask a question, Sylvia, that we want to be very tender about. We are, you know, talking about people's deep faith. But is there a sense that the church is maybe relying less on past requirements, that two miracles be approved and certified? Is the church maybe moving away from that requirement towards acknowledging someone's lifetime?
POGGIOLI: Well actually, no. The lessening of the obligations actually started with John Paul II himself. He's known to have made more saints than all of his predecessors put together. Up until - before John Paul, you could only even start sainthood procedures 50 years after the death of a person, and four miracles were required.
So he changed it. He reduced it first to 10 years, and then in the case of Mother Teresa reduced it to five years. So, you know, that's already - the loosening of the obligations of the requirements already happened some time ago. And I certainly think that with Francis waiving the required second miracle on John XXIII, it's really a nod to the fact that John, as I said, John XXIII was pretty much revered already.
And I think there's much, much less emphasis now on this whole miracle business. The idea is to create unity, to bring together the two wings, the traditionalists and the liberals of the Catholic Church, to make everyone happy.
YOUNG: I guess I was asking do you think the Catholic Church, when you talk about this whole miracle business, is there less of a belief in miracles?
POGGIOLI: Well, it depends where you are. In a city like Rome, it's very hard to say because even though the seat of the Catholic Church is here, it's probably one of the least mystical, maybe least spiritual cities. You don't feel it very much. And in fact I find that even the way the Vatican has been presenting all this, there's been much less emphasis on the miracle aspect of this whole story.
YOUNG: Well meanwhile, the feeling in the city this weekend will be pretty extraordinary. More than 2 million Catholic pilgrims, heads of states, diplomats from 54 countries are expected in Rome. And we're reading about busloads of tourists coming, but also, Sylvia, a group of Polish pilgrims. They're going to travel 2,000 miles on horseback, dressed in medieval costumes in honor of their native son John Paul II.
So whatever you feel other times of the year, what are you feeling right now?
POGGIOLI: Oh, it's getting very, very crowded. I was around St. Peter's Square two days ago, and you could hardly walk. It was just, it was so crowded. I remember for the funeral of John Paul II in 2005, there masses, perhaps two million people, many were sleeping on the streets. This is just a one-day event, so I don't think that will happen. Friday is a holiday here in Italy, the liberation from Nazism and Fascism. I think many, many Romans are already skipping town and taking advantage of a nice long weekend.
YOUNG: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on this weekend's canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. Sylvia, thanks as always.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.
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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And one quick correction before we go to break. In our conversation yesterday with NPR's David Folkenflik about the diminished influence of Sunday political talk shows, we called David Duke a former Louisiana congressman. He was not. He was in fact a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.