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Two Former Popes Can Thank New Pope For Sainthood


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The Roman Catholic Church will soon have two new saints - two saintly popes: John XXIII and John Paul II.

Church watchers are pondering what the elevation of these two men says about the current pope, Francis, and his priorities. Those church watchers include John Allen, correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. We called him yesterday.

John Allen, welcome.

JOHN ALLEN: Hello, there.

WERTHEIMER: Now, John Paul II died fairly recently, we all remember him - the Polish pope. But John XXIII, although he's remembered with great affection by millions of people my age, there must be lots of young folks who are not familiar with him.

ALLEN: Well, John XXIII was this sort of roly-poly, frumpy Italian peasant who improbably was elected to the papacy in 1958, against all odds, ushered in the Second Vatican Council that became one of the watershed moments - if not the watershed - of 20th-century Catholic history. It's remembered for ushering in a period of sort of modernization and reform in the church. Still today, I think, it is fair to say that for the more liberal or progressive wing of the Catholic Church, John XXIII is their hero.

WERTHEIMER: Now, John Paul II, will obviously be remembered for a number of things - one of them is that he elevated more people to sainthood than all other popes combined. But he also had a role in ending the Cold War.

ALLEN: Right. And I think what most historians would start with is the role he played in the collapse of European communism. In fact, many the activists with Solidarity, beginning with Lech Walesa, the founder of the movement and then later, the president of Poland, will tell you that the success of the Solidarity movement would have been inconceivable without the support of the Polish pope in Rome. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we would say the John Paul II helped set the dominoes in motion that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you this. What signal do you think that Pope Francis sends by elevating these two men at the same time? This sounds to me something like what happens in the United States when we nominate a president and then he looks around for a vice presidential candidate who will make the ticket stronger. Is the pope building a ticket here?

ALLEN: Well, I'm not sure he's building a ticket, but I do think there's a bit of political subtext to this, which is I think Francis wants to be a unifying pope. We saw it - the same day he made this announcement about John Paul II and John XXIII, he issued an encyclical letter - which is the most important form of papal teaching - the hallmark of which was outreach to the sort of postmodern seekers of the world, saying that anyone who is open to love and who is concerned with others is already on the path to God whether they know it or not. And I think this is a message of unity and outreach directed in some ways to inside the Catholic fold.

WERTHEIMER: As I understand it, to be canonized in the Catholic Church, there have to be miracles on record.

ALLEN: Well, Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to John Paul II. Of course, the first was the healing of a French nun from Parkinson's disease - and, of course, there's some poetic irony there because that's the same disease from which John Paul II himself suffered. The miracle of proof today is the healing of a woman in Costa Rica who was suffering from a very severe brain injury. So John Paul has met the normal requirement of two miracles for sainthood.

Now what's interesting, with John XXIII, there was a miracle for his beatification in 2000. It was the healing of an Italian nun from internal hemorrhaging. But for sainthood, Francis has set aside the miracle requirement, and this is another indication that Francis is a pope, who while the respects tradition, is not necessarily going to be bound by it when he thinks there's something more important at stake.

WERTHEIMER: John Allen is senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Thank you very much for this.

ALLEN: You're welcome, Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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