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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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So the Good Pope and the Great Pope are going to be canonised together. The raising to the altars of John XXIII and John Paul II on the same day has been engineered by Pope Francis.
If it were a straightforward race Pope John Paul, popularly known as John Paul the Great, would have won it by a mile. There were the “Santo subito” (Make him a saint right now) calls at his funeral. Since then the Polish Pope’s cause has been spearheaded by his countrymen with extraordinary vigour. The second miracle needed for his canonisation has been approved.
Though there were also demands for John XXIII to be canonised immediately after his death in 1963, his cause had stalled. There was one miracle that allowed him to be beatified, but not a second. The Good Pope, as he was known, seemed destined to stay in the shadows for some time yet.
The Polish Church may be unhappy about “their” Pope sharing the limelight with John XXIII. Their veneration of John Paul II is bound up with their vision of him as a great patriot, the man who was key in liberating their country from communism and bringing down the Iron Curtain.
When I was in Rome to cover the beatification of Pope John Paul in 2011 the Poles, with their national flags and banners, belted out Polish hymns in St Peter’s Square. The scene at times was not unlike the terraces at a premiership football match. They will be back in Rome next weekend, easily dwarfing the supporters of John XXIII.
Who will turn out for the Good Pope? There will be a contingent from his home diocese of Bergamo – an area of deep piety which has produced more than its fair share of saints. There will be others – mostly with grey heads – who can remember the man who was meant to be a transitional figure and who ended up taking the boldest step of any pope in the twentieth century by calling the Second Vatican Council.
There will some who can see a direct connection between Pope John and the reforming zeal of Pope Francis, and in a sense will be turning out for both of them.
I think Francis wants Catholics to remember the Pope who called Vatican II, who wasn’t afraid to engage with the world, who held dear the belief that Rome wasn’t the centre of the Catholic universe and believed that power should be devolved downwards. This is Francis’ mission now. In canonising Pope John he is reminding Catholics of his own priorities.
In canonising John Paul II he is recognising the momentum that has gathered behind his cause not least from his predecessor, who at his funeral said he could see him “standing at the window of the Father’s house”, offering his blessing.
I hope there will not be competing crowds for the two papal saints in Rome next weekend. Supporters of John Paul II should graciously recognise the strengths of John XXIII, and vice versa. But although John XXIII has been dead for more than 50 years, it is his vision that has particular relevance now.