THE BLOG
07/05/2013 11:05 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2013

Saints John Paul II and John XXIII

This piece first ran in America Magazine.

Today's announcement by Pope Francis of the canonization of Blessed John Paul II was not a surprise. From the time of his death in 2005, when crowds shouted "Santo Subito!" in St. Peter's Square, to Pope Benedict XVI's waiving of the normal five-year rule (the process of canonization normally doesn't begin until five years after a person's death) to this week's leaked news that the second required miracle had been approved, the official announcement had been expected.

What was not expected in today's announcement, which came during a meeting with the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, was the approval of the canonization of Blessed John XXIII, whose process seemed to have languished in the past few years. Still more surprising was the news that the Pope had waived the normal second miracle. Federico Lombardi, SJ, the papal spokesperson, explained, "Despite the absence of a second miracle, it was the Pope's will that the Sainthood of the great Pope of the Second Vatican Council be redognized." Fr. Lombardi noted that of course the pope has the authority to "dispense" with that requirement, and also added that there had been discussions among theologians and experts about whether two miracles were needed for beatification and canonization. As ever, Pope Francis surprises. (Perhaps John XXIII's second miracle was the election of Francis.)

The two popes appeal to a wide variety of Catholics. John Paul's popularity seemed only to grow as his papacy continued, and has remained strong among Catholics since his death. A man of firm faith, a tireless evangelist, and a strong foe oft both communism and poverty, the pope became, much as he might dislike the use of the word, a religious rock star. Perhaps the most admirable quality of the man was his determination: his early life laboring under a Communist regime in Poland, his incredible series of papal trips, and his long battle against Parkinson's disease showed the world spiritual grit. But the man some call John Paul the Great was not perfect: revelations about the crimes of Father Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, who was both fathered and abused children, cast doubts on John Paul's judgment. But no saint is without flaw: the saints themselves will tell you that.

The renown of John XXIII, on the other hand, seemed to declined among in some quarters in recent years, though for those who love him, he is an immense hero. (Some of this decline was the simple aging and death of those alive during his years as pope.) Humble, humorous, affable, clever, creative, the man who convoked the Second Vatican Council, which came upon him, he said, not as the fruit of long meditation but, as "the flower of an unexpected spring," is beloved as "Good Pope John." But John XXIII was not, as some would have him, simply a jolly, roly-poly old man. A veteran diplomat and a well-read expert in church history, the former Patriarch of Venice was able to deftly steer the church towards the dangerous shores of renewal. He was also strong in his opposition to that worst of traits in the Catholic church: pessimism. In response to those who portended only peril and danger in the world, Pope John responded succinctly in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council: "We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom." But neither was John XXIII perfect: a few point to his pontificate as the beginning of "drift" in the church and his Council as ultimately one that tilted too much towards the modern world.

The joint announcement by Pope Francis may strike some as simply a canny "move." The two popes are seen to appeal to different types of Catholics, and so this announcement will serve to unite these groups. For me, I deeply admire John Paul II, but John XXIII is a great hero. For some friends of mine, that statement would be reversed. But all, I hope can rejoice today.

But there is a much deeper message here, one that goes beyond what some might call church "politics." And that message is about the saints. John Paul and John XXXIII were alike in many ways: dedicated to Christ, devoted to Mary, faithful to the teachings of the church, smart, hardworking, clever, savvy, thoughtful.

In many ways, however, they were different. Karol Wojtyla seemed to have had a more melancholy air than Angelo Roncalli, who by most accounts, was a more lighthearted man, ever ready with a quip. (This is not to say that John Paul was humorless, but those who knew him tend to speak more often of his serious side.) John Paul seemed to relish his place on the world stage, as a way of communicating his faith, whereas John XXIII seemed somewhat more private, having written to his sister before the conclave that elected him, "Who wants to be more than a cardinal?" John Paul sometimes seemed more philosopher (one need only read his encyclicals for evidence of this) while John seemed more pastor (over the door to his study in Venice, Cardinal Roncalli placed the motto Pastor et Pater.) The two also approached church governance in different ways, appointed different kinds of bishops and archbishops during their papacies. More basically, friends of mine who knew both of them describe their personalities in different ways.

But it has always been this way. Two things we must remember about the saints: First, they were not perfect. And second, as today's announcement reminds us, they are not cookie-cutter versions of one another. John Paul II and John XXIII may appeal to different types of Catholics because they were different types of people. And what the church is telling us today is that both types are saints.

Maybe John XXIII said it best, when speaking about the false idea that the saints were the same. In one of his journal entries he wondered if he was called to be exactly like one of his great saints, the Jesuit Aloysius Gonzaga. No, he concluded, "I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life....If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way."