“Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”) chanted the millions of Catholics mourning at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
When Pope Francis carries out a historic double canonisation of two popes this Sunday – Pope John XIII and Pope John Paul II – Francis will be acting upon the will of millions of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. It is exciting and, for many, a long time coming.
Given the massive popular devotion to Pope John Paul II, his sanctity and holiness have never been in doubt among Catholics. It is only natural, then, that John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, waived the requirement to wait five years after death before starting the process of Pope John Paul II’s canonisation. The shouts of “Santo subito!” reverberating around Rome at the time of his death were enough to confirm what the faithful wanted.
Therefore, it is not because John Paul II was a pope that Benedict XVI began the canonisation process only five weeks after his death. It is instead a response by the Church to the devotion and fame that he inspired throughout his pontificate and the will of the people. Indeed, canonisation by the Church is only a declaration of a person’s holiness, affirming that people can be confident in praying to this person.
In fact, after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, her followers successfully pressed Pope John Paul II to waive the rule that prevented the process of canonisation from beginning until after five years after a candidate’s death. Since then, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have also put aside regular processes to declare 12th-century nun Hildegard of Bingen and 16th-century Jesuit priest Peter Faber as saints also.
There are some people who object to the speed of John Paul II’s canonisation. They believe that the Church has acted too hastily and has overlooked the seriousness of the sexual abuse crisis that emerged towards the end of John Paul II’s pontificate.
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Many would admit that the Church, like so many other institutions such as Hollywood and the BBC, just didn’t get the sexual abuse that was going on in the 60s and 70s. Yet while the abuse happened then, the pain continues now. This is something that is recognised by the Church, and shown by the action the Church has taken in the past decade.
However, it must be remembered that John Paul II only became pope in 1978, after most of the abuse happened. It took two decades for the Church really to understand how widespread the problem was. By this time, John Paul II was getting old, debilitated by Parkinson’s disease which would affect the later years of his life. When he did find out he was appalled; it was beyond his understanding. In 2001 he asked Cardinal Ratzinger, who four years later would become Pope Benedict XVI, to deal with the problem in a decisive way.
It is likely that if he were alive today, John Paul II would still be leading the clean-up, since throughout his pontificate he was not afraid of apologising publicly for historic wrongdoings by the Catholic Church.
Other objectors mention his firm stance against abortion and artificial contraception, but they fail to understand that at the heart of John Paul II’s belief and practise was to save lives and value every human life, regardless of race, gender, or religion.
The AIDS prevention programmes run by the Catholic Church in Africa, which are based on behaviour change and promote the delay of sexual initiation and restriction of the number of sexual partners, have been among the most successful in lowering infection rates and saving lives.
And for those who unfortunately do become infected, the Church helps to look after them, removing the stigma attached to the disease and treating them with the dignity that should be accorded to every human being.
For Catholics who lived through the Cold War, John Paul II’s journey and experiences living under occupation and oppression spoke to their own.
The impact of Pope John Paul II’s canonisation will cross borders and generations. His canonisation will be a recognition of a man who could reach and touch the lives of people living thousands of miles away across the world – in an era without social media and technology.
For those onlookers outside the Catholic Church, who have always respected Pope John Paul II, they will remember that at the centre of his life was forgiveness and love. This was no better represented than his forgiveness and then friendship with Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to kill him in 1981.
For Catholics who lived through the Cold War, John Paul II’s journey and experiences living under occupation and oppression spoke to their own. In John Paul II they knew they had someone who would not forget them. After his 129 papal visits to countries, many of which had never been visited before by a pontiff, “the travelling Pope” will be remembered for bringing the Church into places of darkness and for his strength and tenacity in places where Catholics were marginalised and persecuted.
For young Catholics, John Paul II will be remembered for initiating the World Youth Days, one of which drew seven million young people in Manila, Philippines, to bring the Church closer to those at the beginning of their journey of faith.
As pope, John Paul II canonised 472 saints and beatified more than 1,300 men and women from across the world, because he wanted to show that holiness was within everyone’s reach, accessible to men and women of all ages and in all countries. Perhaps it is only right that Pope John Paul II is also recognised by the Church and its faithful for his holiness.
As Catholics and Christians, we are each called on to become a saint. If we were to follow the values of Pope John Paul II, then we also can be in no doubt that we, too, will be saints at our death.
Aaron D’Souza is a speaker and contributor for Catholic Voices. He is a youth ambassador, leader and adviser for different charities and youth organisations in the UK.