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Do we really need to canonise our popes? Who counts more, St Francis, or the pope of the day?

The Catholic Church ‘thinks in centuries’ and this phrase rests on the received wisdom that time needs to pass before we can make a judgement on someone

By on Monday, 30 September 2013

Benedict XVI drives past a picture of John Paul II in St Peter's Square on the day of the late pope's beatification (CNS)

Benedict XVI drives past a picture of John Paul II in St Peter's Square on the day of the late pope's beatification (CNS)

The Vatican has announced the date for the canonisation of the Blessed John XXIII and the Blessed John Paul II. Both Popes will be declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, 2014.

I am sure that many people will be delighted with this news. For my part, while not doubting the sanctity of either Blessed, or the fact that they are both exemplary models of the Christian life, I am left stroking my metaphorical beard.

First of all, why the speed? Pope John, it is true has been dead for fifty years; but John Paul II died only eight years ago. It has been said that the Catholic Church thinks in centuries, and this phrase rests on the received wisdom that time, sometimes lots of time, needs to pass before we can make a judgement on someone; and centuries may need to pass before we the Church can be ready to understand and fully to profit from the example of someone’s life. John Paul II was undoubtedly a great man, and a man who gave himself totally to God, but I think we would all be better placed to see this with the perspective provided by a few hundred years. The same may well be true of Pope John; the application of the great reforming Council he called is still in its early stages.

What was that famous question someone once put to Chou En-lai? When asked what he thought about the French Revolution, the old Communist was thoughtful and said: “It’s too early to tell.” Well, the same is true about any twentieth century Pope.

The other thing is this: do we really need to canonise our Popes, and if so, why not canonise them all? In fact, Popes play rather a different role in the Church to the Saints. The most important saint of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day is celebrated tomorrow, with Padre Pio coming up close behind. They were not Popes, but their influence may well prove to be greater than any pope.

Again look at times past. Who counts more, Saint Francis, or the Pope of the day? In fact the Pope of that time, Innocent III, was a very powerful man, and historically important, but his influence on present day Catholics is virtually nil. Again, consider the nineteenth century: it is Bernadette who matters more than any other Catholic of that time.

And when the history of our own times comes to be written, my guess is that the towering figure of the time will be Mother Teresa, and that John Paul II, who so admired her, knew this better than most.