Major canonisations are one of those rare moments in the life of the Catholic Church where much of the world’s gaze is temporarily shifted in our direction.
Clearly, this is something of a double-edged sword, but rather than moaning about the inevitable Dan-Brownesque conspiracy theories, and ‘new‘ scandals that accompany these things, I prefer to see them as an opportunity to tell the world exactly why they really matter. So, here goes.
This weekend, two great 20th century Popes will be canonised, which means that they will be officially recognised as Saints. Strictly speaking, this means that the Church is making an infallible statement that they are in heaven praying for us, but yet canonisation is more than just a heavenly ‘let me know you’ve arrived safely‘. It is also a person being lifted up in front of the world as an example of true greatness and heroism.
Most of the focus is understandably on the most recent of the two Pope’s in question, Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope who led the Church from 1978-2005. Everybody knows the major headlines about his life: his role in the fall of communism being key. His visit to his homeland Poland in 1979 helped foster the birth of the Solidarity labour movement a year later. This visit, in the words of one historian of the Cold War, “turned out to be a mortal blow to its Communist regime and to the Soviet Empire.”
It was on John Paul’s watch that the AIDS story began, and with it the rather lazy assumption that condoms would solve the problem like a magic wand. Tied to this assumption was the equally lazy assumption that the Catholic Church’s archaic teachings on such matters were exacerbating the epidemic.
Years later, the aid agencies working in Africa and the experts studying the phenomenon would realise that the Catholic Churches teachings actually had little to do with the spread of the disease (case in point: the two countries with the largest AIDS problem in Africa are Anglican) but not before John Paul II was vilified the world over.
John Paul held the line on that particular teaching against a fierce barrage. A lesser leader would have waived the white flag long before and found a way to compromise, but John Paul stuck to what he believed to be right. Having grown up with tyranny, he believed that the only true freedom came from truth, and he wasn’t prepared to let it slip away for the sake of temporary comfort. And so, he held the line on AIDS and condoms, knowing that to endorse a teaching that separated sex from procreation would be fatal to Catholic teaching on the dignity of each human person.
In addition to this but with his ‘Theology of the Body‘ talks he also opened up the Churches teaching on sexuality to a new generation, making it understandable in a way never really accomplished before. His book on human sexuality “Love and Responsibility” proved popular if deeply countercultural. In it Pope John Paul II explains that “love for a person must consist in affirmation that the person has a value higher than that of an object for consumption or use.”
But it wasn’t just about John Paul’s teaching. He was also a great pastor and had a common touch with people. Those in my particular profession will always be grateful for his vision and insight in starting the World Youth Days. World Youth Day in 1995, where over 5 million youths gathered at Luneta Park in Manila, Philippines, became the largest Christian gathering ever!
He was also the most travelled Pope in history, and often on his travels would share a joke with people and generate an unexpected touching, personal moment. Pope Francis may have cornered the market in those, but he didn’t invent them! Talk to anybody who met John Paul and they will back up the stories of a strong leader, adding their own stories of a warm and decent man.
Not bad for somebody who was essentially elected as a compromise candidate.
While most of the focus is on John Paul II, we shouldn’t forget that Pope John XXII is also part of Sunday’s canonisation ceremony. While not as long-serving or fresh in the memory as John Paul II, this rather portly man from northern Italy, also played a remarkable part in history. He wasn’t elected as a compromise candidate, as much as a caretaker. He was meant to hold the fort for a fairly short and uneventful reign while the Church adjusted following the death of the very influential Pope Pius XII.
John had other ideas though, and convened the Second Vatican Council. What followed was probably the biggest change to the Catholic Church since at least the reformation, if not beyond. John didn’t survive to see his changes take effect but he is rightly credited with being the major force behind them.
Every culture has a way of celebrating it’s heroes. For us Catholics, canonisation is as big a celebration as you can get.