A Church united

  • July 11, 2013

On July 5 Pope Francis released his first encyclical, a newsworthy event in itself, but then he knocked himself from the headlines by approving the sainthood causes of two of his renowned predecessors. If the rapid-fire announcements seemed unusual, well, that should come as no surprise from a Pope who keeps doing things his way.

Fittingly as it turned out, two main themes of Francis’ encyclical (The Light of Faith) were promoting universal brotherhood and celebrating unity in faith. They were fitting because, in later signing a decree for the canonization of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis made another important statement about Catholic unity: though we may sometimes differ, we are united in faith as one Church.

The imminent sainthood for both former popes is cause for celebration. They will be canonized together, probably late this year, and it will be an occasion to honour two lives of exemplary holiness, witness and sacrifice. Yet, in both cases, there will be some unease due to the distinct imprint each left on the Church.

John XXIII is widely revered as a great reformer and an embodiment of compassion, but support for his sainthood cause was never universal because, by convening Vatican II in 1962, he launched a period of significant change which remains a divisive subject to this day. Additionally, some eyebrows are being raised because his cause is proceeding despite the absence of a second miracle, a normal requirement that was waived in this case by the Pope, as is his right.

In the case of John Paul II, few would dispute the enormous spiritual and temporal contributions of his 27-year papacy. But the authoritarian style that won him the admiration of Church traditionalists still rankles some progressives. There is also some unease with how John Paul II’s sainthood cause, despite its clear merits, was fast-tracked (he died eight years ago).

By canonizing both men simultaneously, Pope Francis is commending their obvious saintly virtues but he also seems to be signalling that he will remain above the political sniping that too often wounds the Church. Canonizing one ahead of the other could have been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as Francis taking sides. Instead, as is his talent, he is building a bridge between disagreeing parties by highlighting the important and fundamental shared qualities, the profound faith and goodness, so evident in these two former popes.

The saints are a unifying force. Canonizing John XXII and John Paul II the same day will bring all the faithful together in prayer and jubilation. It will be a great occasion for the Church, a day to celebrate the fundamental truths that unite us as Catholics and a day to set aside the secondary differences that sometimes pull us apart.

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