John XXIII, the pontiff who called the landmark second Vatican council, and John Paul II, who crisscrossed the globe during his 26 years as leader of the Roman Catholic church, will be declared saints in April in a historic ceremony that could be attended by their two living successors.
The announcement of the date for the canonisations had been expected since July, when Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to John Paul, clearing the path for the fastest canonisation in modern times.
During a meeting with cardinals inside the Apostolic palace on Monday, the pope revealed that the canonisations would take place on 27 April.
The Vatican has also hinted that Pope Benedict XVI might join Francis for the event despite the retired pontiff’s expressed desire to spend his final days “hidden from the world” in the Vatican monastery.
“There’s no reason either doctrinal or institutional that he couldn’t participate in a public ceremony,” said the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi. “I don’t have any reason to exclude it.”
The prospect of two living popes honouring two dead ones will serve only to heighten interest in what is already an highly unusual double-canonisation.
When Benedict began John Paul’s beatification process a month after the latter died in 2005, the Vatican said the customary five-year waiting period was to be waived because of “exceptional circumstances”.
In 2011, after a first miracle had been attributed to the Polish pontiff, he was beatified by Benedict in a ceremony attended by several hundred thousand people in St Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets.
According to the Vatican, that first miracle concerned the inexplicable recovery of a French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, who was apparently dying of Parkinson’s disease but was cured after she and her fellow nuns prayed for the intercession of the late pope, who died from the disease.
Three months ago, Pope Francis approved a second miracle – the case of Floribeth Mora, a 50-year-old Costa Rican woman who said she was cured of a brain aneurysm after a photograph of John Paul appeared to speak to her during his beatification. Her doctor told reporters that the aneurysm disappeared for no apparent reason.
Although loved and admired by many Catholics for energising the church, promoting interfaith dialogue and helping to hasten the demise of communism, John Paul II has been accused by critics of failing to tackle the sex abuse allegations against priests that emerged during his papacy. Others feel that it is simply too soon to make him a saint.
Francis’s decision to canonise John XXIII even though the Italian pope has been credited with only one miracle since his death in 1963 is also extremely unusual.
However, observers have noted that Francis – whose papacy so far has been characterised by its warmth and informality – has much in common with the pontiff fondly nicknamed “Good Pope John”. John XXIII was also fond of late-night strolls around Rome and pastoral visits to sick children and prison inmates. The decision to canonise the two very different popes at the same time suggests Francis is endeavouring to bring the church together.
In an interview with a US Jesuit magazine this month, Francis said he intended to follow John XXIII’s motto when it came to governing the church: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”
He also reflected on the legacy of the reforming second Vatican council, which his predecessor convened in 1962.
“Vatican II was a re-reading of the gospel in light of contemporary culture,” he said. “Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the gospel from a concrete historical situation.”
Loris Capovilla, an Italian prelate who was Pope John XXIII’s long-time secretary, said that when Francis told him of his intention to canonise the pontiff, he was struck that the move was coming from “the successor most similar to him”.
“I was so emotional that I couldn’t utter a word,” he told La Stampa newspaper. “He reminds me in every way of John XXIII: in his gestures, in his attention to the poor … He has the same humility and mildness of heart as John XXIII, who was a wise and enlightened father who spoke to the human family that is torn apart by opposing interests and by senseless and sometimes implacable dislikes.”