Politics, miracles and the process of picking a modern saint

Pope Francis has chosen two iconic 20th century popes to be canonized. Jeffrey Brown gets reaction and background from Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University and John Allen of The Boston Globe on the political motives behind the pairing, the unprecedented speed of the selection and the evolving standards of sainthood.

Read the Full Transcript


    And joining me now, Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. And from Rome, where he's covering this event, John Allen is associate editor for The Boston Globe.

    Well, John, welcome back.

    First, starting with you, two very different popes known for two very different things, clearly, some significance in putting them together in this canonization, right?

  • JOHN ALLEN, The Boston Globe:

    Oh, absolutely.

    I think one thing that you dare never forget about Pope Francis is that beneath the humble, simple exterior, which is of course real, but beneath it is the mind of an extraordinarily crafty Jesuit politician.

    This is a pope who is very sensitive to the politics of everything he does. And I think he is aware, although he may not himself share this view, but he is aware that in the Catholic street, Pope John XXIII, the father of the Second Vatican Council, which launched the church on a course of reform, is a hero to the Catholic left, whereas Pope John Paul II, the pope who battled communism and later battled what he described as a culture of death behind liberalizing currents on abortion and other life issues, he is a hero to the Catholic right.

    I think Francis worried that if either one were canonized individually, that that ceremony could have come off as a victory lap for one side or another in the church's internal debates, whereas by putting them together what he achieves is a kind of call to unity, an invitation to left and right to get past their differences and come together.


    Well, Patricia McGuire, what in our time does it mean to be canonized as a saint? How important is it to Catholics today? It's a general question, I realize, but how important and what difference does it make?

  • PATRICIA MCGUIRE, Trinity Washington University:

    I think it's extraordinarily important.

    We live in an age where we revere icons. You know, "TIME" magazine comes out with the 100 most influential. Well, John XXIII and John Paul II have to be the two most influential Catholic leaders across the century, if not more.


    Saying that, there still has been some question or concern about the speed with which John Paul II, even within the church, right?




    So, it's an interesting discussion there.


    Well, there was a sense that he had already showed characteristics of sainthood even during his life.

    The fact that he had the charisma and the leadership skill and the fortitude to do what he did with regard to Poland, the liberation of Poland in Eastern Europe, he's a real hero to people who are oppressed. And even those who consider themselves progressive Catholics also liked John Paul II. And there may be disagreements about some church doctrinal issues, but he was a hero for many, and many would agree with his sainthood.


    And, John Allen, how much has this criticism we mentioned about the child abuse scandals, how much has that been a factor here?


    Clearly, the criticism about John Paul II's record on the church's child sexual abuse scandals is undeniably part of the subtext of this event.

    The Vatican has been staging a series of briefings with some of the luminaries with from the John II era this week. We heard today, for example, from Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Spanish — his spokesperson for 22 years. We heard from Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow and Poland, who was John Paul's right-hand man.

    We heard from American Catholic writer George Weigel, who's the papal biographer. All of them were asked questions about the way John Paul II did or didn't respond to the child sexual abuse scandal. So I think in terms of the way the media is covering this story, and probably to some extent opinion at the grassroots, it's a piece of the picture.

    But, on the other hand, it clearly isn't doing much to dampen the enthusiasm of the throngs of pilgrims who are filling Rome even as we speak. And although estimates vary, some — at least one million, perhaps as many as two million or more expected on Sunday, I think what most of them would say is that, while John Paul may have had, that any particular pope may have made mistakes in judgment over the course of their pontificate, at the end of the day, they don't seem to harbor much doubt that John Paul is worthy of the honor of being declared a saint.


    Patricia McGuire, what — I know even within the church, there was an interesting discussion about whether popes should be sainted. Right? They're already exalted in some sense by…


    This is true. And a little bit — it looks like a little bit of back-scratching, one pope doing that for the other.

    But on the other hand, clarifying, holding up the record of leadership of these two individuals, holding out the idea that John XXIII, what he did in just five years as pope had life-changing effects for many Catholics, the same with John Paul II, I think there's nothing wrong with popes honoring each other, if it's for all the right reasons.

    And not all popes become saints, by the way. So in the fact that not every pope is being honored, but only those who have done extraordinary things, there's a lesson in that.


    And how are we to understand the miracle question in this day and age? Because the idea — how much — how much rigor goes into the evidence, in this case with John XXIII, one miracle, as opposed to the normal two? What is the meaning of that?


    Well, I think in the modern age, there is a tendency both to take miracles literally and to say there must be a literal — because we're a very literal people — and on the other hand to say, well, we can interpret and look more broadly at this question.

    I think there is a desire to look more broadly at the man's entire body of work. And many people say he was a very holy man, even during his life. He created miracles. And that's a healthier modern view than to say there must be a cure. I think the age of looking for specific cures is probably beginning to wane. And the idea that we should hold up as role models holy, effective, good leaders, good people who try to change the world, that really is what sainthood is all about.


    And, John Allen, just in our last minute, tell us a little — you started to tell us a little bit about what's going to happen, but how does it feel, already? What's the scene like there? What are you expecting this weekend?


    Well, I don't know if you're picking up any of the background noise, but pilgrims — I'm coming to you from a location immediately adjacent to St. Peter's Square.

    Pilgrims are already filling up the place, singing, playing tambourines, banjos. It has, honestly, the feel of kind of a mix between a very somber liturgy and a high school pep rally.



    What's going to happen is, come tomorrow, Saturday, there are going to be 11 churches around Rome that are going to be open all night for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who will be here, who want to spend the night praying, preparing for the canonization.

    On Sunday, the area around St. Peter's Square is going to fill up. It will be packed to bursting. Officials in Rome have put up 19 JumboTron TV screens in different locations around town to accommodate the overflow crowds.

    The Vatican has told us that they are deploying an army of almost 6,000 priests who are going to be taking part in the mass Sunday morning led by Pope Francis in which these two popes will be declared saints. They have got hundreds of clergy organized to distribute communion up and down the Via della Conciliazione, which is the broad street leading away from the square.

    The bottom line is that this is going to be the biggest public event in Rome since the 2005 funeral mass of Pope John Paul II. And I think any questions about how relevant sainthood remains in the early 21st century to some extent is going to be answered by the vast crowds turning out to be part of the scene.


    All right, John Allen in Rome and Patricia McGuire here, thank you both so much.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment