VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday cleared two of the 20th century's most influential popes to become saints, approving a second miracle needed to canonize Pope John Paul II and waiving Vatican rules to honor Pope John XXIII.
It was a remarkable show of papal authority and confirmed Francis' willingness to bend church tradition when it comes to things he cares deeply about. Both popes are also closely identified with the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into modern times, an indication that Francis clearly wants to make a statement about the council's role in shaping the church today.
Francis approved a decree that a Costa Rican woman's inexplicable cure from a deadly brain aneurysm was the second miracle needed to canonize John Paul. More significantly, he decided that John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, could be declared a saint even without a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The Vatican said Francis had the power to dispense with such requirements and could proceed with only one confirmed miracle to John's name.
John XXIII is credited with curing an Italian nun in 1966 who suffered severe stomach bleeding and infection. Other nuns placed an image of John XXIII on her stomach and she recovered.
The ceremony for John Paul II and John XXIII is expected before the end of the year. The date of Dec. 8 has been floated as likely, given that it's the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major feast day for the church that honors Mary, to whom both popes were particularly devoted.
The announcement came on a remarkable day melding papacies past and present. It opened with Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attending their first Vatican ceremony together, the unveiling of a statue in the Vatican gardens. It continued with the publication of Francis' first encyclical, a meditation on faith that was largely written by Benedict before he retired but was signed by Francis. And it finished with Francis' decision to canonize two other predecessors.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican analyst, said the decision to canonize both popes was a "brilliant move to unify the church," given that each pope has his own admirers and critics.
"With the joint announcement, Pope Francis is saying we do not have to choose between popes. We can honor and revere both as holy men who served the church well in their times," he wrote on his blog for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper.
Vatican II, which John XXIII opened a year before his 1963 death, opened the church to people of other faiths and allowed for Mass to be celebrated in the languages of the faithful, rather than in Latin. In the years since it closed in 1965, though, it has become a source of division in the church.
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John Paul, who was pope from 1978-2005, revolutionized the papacy, traveling the world and inspiring a generation of young Catholics to be excited about their faith. He was the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian in 455 years — a legacy that continued with the German-born Benedict XVI and Argentine Francis.
John XXIII, dubbed the "good pope" for his affable nature, is best known for having convened Vatican II, sensing that the time was ripe for a renewal of the church. But he has fallen from favor among conservatives who blame Vatican II for the church's problems today.
Benedict spent much of his pontificate trying to correct what he considered wrong interpretations of Vatican II, insisting it wasn't the break from the past that liberals believed.
While not disagreeing outright with Benedict, Francis seems to take a more progressive view of Vatican II and its call to go out into the world and spread the faith — a priority he has shown in the first months of his pontificate.
The two living popes, however, clearly get along.
"Your Holiness, good day and thank you!" Francis beamed on Friday as he greeted Benedict in the Vatican gardens for the unveiling of the statue. Benedict, 86, appeared in good form, walking slowly but on his own and greeting well-wishers.
The Vatican's complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify that a miracle occurred through the intercession of the candidate — a medically inexplicable cure that is lasting, immediate and can be directly linked to prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after John Paul's death. Benedict was responding to chants of "Santo subito!" or "Sainthood immediately!" that erupted during John Paul's funeral.
There has been some concern that the process has been too quick. Some of the Holy See's deep-seated problems — clerical sex abuse, dysfunctional governance and more recently the financial scandals at the Vatican bank — essentially date from shortcomings of his pontificate.
Thus the decision to canonize John Paul along with John XXIII can be seen as trying to balance those concerns, as well as the shortcomings of each pope. The Vatican has argued that sainthood cases are based on the record of the person, not the pontificate.
Asked how John XXIII, elected in 1958, could be canonized without a second miracle, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, insisted that many theologians believe that a second miracle isn't required. He said Francis had approved a decision by the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican's saint-making office.
"Certainly the pope has the power, in a certain sense, to dispense of the second miracle in a cause, and this is what happened," Lombardi said.
He stressed that the decision didn't represent any relaxing of the Vatican's overall standards for canonization but represented a unique situation, given that the church this year is marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.
"John XXIII is someone who we know is beloved in the church, we're in the 50th anniversary of the council which he started, and I don't think any of us have any doubts about his virtues," Lombardi said.