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A day of four popes: John Paul II and John XXIII canonised

27 April 2014

7:30 PM

27 April 2014

7:30 PM

To have one pope canonise another is remarkable; to have two popes canonise two popes (well, one was looking on but you see what I mean) is a marvel. These events are always a bit mindblowing by sheer dint of numbers – BBC reports estimated that a million people were present – but in terms of spectacle, the day of four popes is something else.

I was in St Peter’s Square myself when Pope Francis was inaugurated; I was there too for the funeral of Pope John Paul II (me and about three million Poles) and I can vouch that these events are as ebullient as they seem from outside, invested with colossal good humour and attended by the curious as well as the devout. What you don’t observe until you’re there is the steely determination of the nuns present to get a decent view; they stop at nothing. And you have to feel for the unfortunates who have the job of policing a devout but determined crowd: not just the Swiss guards, who are just fabulous, but the assorted police and military of  the city and the state.

It’s only at events like these that you get a real sense of the catholicity of the Catholic church; and we saw that today – the flags of every nation, every kind of face under the sun. Globalisation can be a really dreary thing in practice, whereby young people from all over the world have exactly the same kind of look; well, in Rome, it’s the reverse. There are religious orders and communities in every kind of habit and dress and demeanour; Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, bishops, priests, monsignori, eastern Christians, Armenians, Copts, you name it. Everyone else looks a bit tame. For outsiders – and for some layfolk – it must look like Hogwarts; from inside it looks like all the hidden and diverse bits of the church are brought together inside the arms of St Peter’s – which is, when you think about it, precisely the purpose of the architecture of the square. It’s easy, in these circumstances, to see how the Vatican can become isolated from the realities of life in less favoured parts of the church.

Quite a lot has been made, quite rightly, of Pope Francis’s shrewdness in canonising Pope John XXIII as well as his predecessor but one. They made quite different contributions to the church. I was there, in fact, when the crowd was shouting Santo Subito – demanding canonisation – at the funeral of Pope John Paul II and plainly it wasn’t a spontaneous thing so much as an organised one. But he was genuinely an historic pope, an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. I do think, like his critics, that he should have done more, sooner, to deal with the abuses of the Legionaries of Christ founder, Marcial Maciel, but it doesn’t diminish his transformative effect on the papacy. Pope John XXIII was a far greater pope; I remember seeing his benign image in the homes of the elderly relations I visited as a child. The approach of the church to the world, and every Catholic’s experience of the church was changed as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Mostly for the better. Even now its documents are worth reading.

But it’s also interesting to see the personalities of the two living popes in close proximity. It’s been striking how much the cult of pope Francis has been seen as a zero sum game; if you like Francis, you deplore Benedict; Francis the nice church, Benedict the nasty church. Except it’s not like that. Francis has made, of course, telling criticisms of capitalism but it was Benedict who, in his remarkable encyclical on globalisation and economic development, Caritas in Veritate, observed that ‘the ultimate capital to be safeguarded is man’. They couldn’t be less like as personalities – whatever the opposite of touchy-feely is, that’s pope Benedict – but there’s no discordance there. It was good to see them together.

I can see that when Pope Francis finally dies there’ll be much the same calls for his canonisation – at least if he carries on as he’s going – but I rather hope this is the last canonisation of a pope for a century or two. There was indeed a good 500 years between the canonisation of Pius V and Pius X in the early twentieth century. Making someone a saint is simply formal recognition that they are in heaven and requiring the universal church to venerate them. But other popes were plainly saintly or plainly forces for good – Leo XIII, in spades – without the official designation. It shouldn’t be a perk of the papacy.

What today has done, though, is remind us of the sheer catholicity of the Catholic church –  of its feat, more prized today than at any other period, of providing diversity in unity, of furnishing a global, multinational body with institutional unity and coherence. It’s also a reminder that faith is something that makes for happiness, kindly fellow feeling, exuberance and goodwill. The usual British take on religion is almost exactly the opposite.

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