Papal canonizations a lesson in subtle art of Catholic Church politics

April 25, 2014

(DATE IMPORTED:April 25, 2014Two priest walk as they hold pictures of Pope John Paul II (L) and Pope John XXIII in front of St. Peter’s square, in Rome April 25, 2014.REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini )

When the late Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are declared saints on Sunday, the Vatican ceremony will be both a spiritual event for Roman Catholicism and a lesson in the subtle politics of the world’s largest church.

Most of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will generally agree that these two men, in their own ways, were holy and charismatic pastors who helped their 2,000-year-old Church to confront the challenges of the modern era.

When it comes to details, though, opinions will diverge. The debates are long and complex, but the popular notion of John as a liberal champion and John Paul as a conservative stalwart gives a rough outline of how they are seen.

As such, they symbolize two groups in the Catholic Church that have disagreed for decades, sometimes bitterly, over how to interpret the results of the reforming Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 that John launched and John Paul largely implemented.

By canonizing both, Argentine-born Pope Francis will be using the symbolism of unity to urge Catholics to look beyond these divisions to join together in following the Gospel.

“These two popes represent different wings of the Church,” said Ashley McGuire of the Catholic Association, a Washington-based lay group that defends Catholic views on public issues.

“Unity is a big theme of Pope Francis’s papacy. He’s saying we’re all Catholics, we’re on a common journey together.”

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