A Tale of Two Saints
The Church recognizes “heroic virtue” in two of its former popes.

John Paul II (left) and Pope John XXIII


On Divine Mercy Sunday this weekend in Rome — one week after Easter — Pope Francis will celebrate the canonizations of two recent predecessors in the Chair of Peter, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discusses the significance of the event with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why are John Paul II and John XXIII being canonized? Is it a big deal that this is a “doubleheader”?

GEORGE WEIGEL: It’s probably useful to get one thing straight at the outset: The Church doesn’t “make saints,” and neither does the pope. God makes saints, and the Church (through the pope and his collaborators) recognizes the saints God has made. In the first millennium of Christian history, the Church “recognized” saints through popular acclamation. From the mid 17th century on, the Church used a rather complex (and frankly adversarial) legal process to test whether popular reputations for heroic virtue — the definition of “sanctity” the Church uses in assessing these things — were warranted. That process was reformed by John Paul II in 1983, so that the current process more closely resembles a doctoral seminar in history than a trial. 

Multiple canonizations are not all that rare. What gives the “doubleheader” of John XXIII and John Paul II its particular resonance is that both men were beloved, both were controversial, and both were deeply involved with the Second Vatican Council. A lot of the contemporary history of the Catholic Church is summed up in these two lives.

I think Pope Francis’s decision to waive the normal requirement for a second, post-beatification miracle for John XXIII and to celebrate his canonization together with that of John Paul II (after a post-beatification miracle due to his intercession had been confirmed) was inspired and bold. What Pope Francis may be saying is that here are the two bookends of the Second Vatican Council: the pope who had the courage and wisdom to summon the most important Catholic event in 500 years, and the pope who had the courage and wisdom to give that council an authoritative interpretation. I’d also suggest that John Paul II completed the work of John XXIII, by giving post-conciliar Catholicism a new vision of its evangelical, missionary potential — which happens to be the reason John XXIII called Vatican II, as we learn from rereading his magnificent opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962.

LOPEZ: What makes each of them saints?

WEIGEL: As always, it’s a case of “heroic virtue.” Both men had a widespread reputation for sanctity during their lives; indeed, in both cases, there were calls immediately after their deaths for them to be proclaimed saints. The dignity with which both of them bore their final suffering was a great priestly example, as was the calm courage with which both conducted the Office of Peter. And they could “pope” as well as they did because they were both men who had displayed, in their pre-papal lives and ministries, a radical conversion to Christ.

LOPEZ: What is canonization anyway? Does the Vatican have a window into who is in Heaven and who is in Hell? Could this be presumptuous on the part of the Catholic Church?

WEIGEL: “The Vatican” is, depending on the context, a micro-state or a set of buildings, and in either instance, “the Vatican” doesn’t have any privileged insight into human souls. What the Catholic Church does have is the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ that, by the Holy Spirit, she will be preserved in the truth Christ left her as a patrimony. And part of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing preservation of the Church in the truth is the Holy Spirit’s lifting up saintly men and women throughout the ages — and enabling the Church to recognize the sanctity of its sons and daughters, even when that sanctity comes in surprising or unexpected ways. The formal process of “canonization” is intended to weigh claims that X or Y lived the virtues in an exceptional way, a claim that is also weighed against the expectation that God will provide his own signal in the case of X or Y, through the medically inexplicable cures that are attributed to the intercession of candidates for beatification and canonization.