With Canonization of Two Popes, Sainthood Becomes Less Miraculous

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The Pope John Paul II tapestry is pictured amid statues during the canonization mass on April 27, 2014. Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

About a million joyous Catholics crowded in and around St. Peter’s Square yesterday to celebrate the canonization of two popes, the first double bill featuring two pontiffs in church history. The current pope, Francis, led the ceremony, which was widely viewed as a shrewd political move to unite two competing factions. One of those canonized, Pope John XXIII, was a folksy, joke-telling, Italian pope connected with the Second Vatican Council and with a fondness for the commoner. The other, Pope John Paul II, was a traditionalist: He enforced a more conservative interpretation of Catholic doctrine and also darted off on the occasional ski vacation. Born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Poland, he was also the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries. For Francis, it was an opportunity to show that the church can be a big tent.

But to accomplish this crucial goal, Francis had to tinker with the requirements for sainthood. In church doctrine, saints have to perform two verifiable miracles. That task, though, has become increasingly difficult to accomplish as medical technology now offers rational explanations for events that were once seen as supernatural. Pope John XXIII had in fact been a candidate for sainthood for decades. His candidacy stalled when no one could present convincing evidence of a second miracle. But Pope Francis waived the requirement.

The second miracle attributed to Pope John Paul arrived just in time — in 2011 — and last summer Francis cleared him for canonization.

The church has long viewed miracles as proof of a special divine connection, the prime qualification for sainthood. A saint channeled the supernatural powers of the Holy Spirit. Saint Peter, for whom the square in Vatican City is named, has slews of miracles attributed to him, including resurrecting a smoked fish and making dogs talk. Francis apparently understands that the modern Vatican needs new saints as crowd-pleasers, tools for recruiting new followers, and as a means of knitting together a fractious church. He seems intent on canonizing them, even if today's sainthood is a bit like receiving the Medal of Honor for valorous service – or, in church parlance, for “holiness.”