Last Sunday, in something of a PR coup, Pope Francis I carried out an ‘unprecedented’ canonisation ceremony for not just one, but two popes, John XXIII (pope 1958-63) and the rather-better-known John Paul II (pope 1978-2005). Commentators for the British media have received the news of the canonisations in various ways, heralding them variously as: well-deserved honours for two great leaders of the twentieth century; hugely outdated, self-gratifying ‘medieval’ ceremonies; and, with regard to John Paul II, an inappropriate honour due to his failure to address the child sex abuse scandal.
So what are the reasons behind Francis’ choice to canonise these popes? And it this just medieval hokum, or does this mystic ritual have a more earthly and practical element to it?
It must be remembered that, alongside his main role as a spiritual leader, the pope is also required to be a skilled diplomat and politician. This is certainly not a new expectation – popes were frequently embroiled in secular wars and disputes between realms in the medieval and early modern eras – but it has arguably become more important in the modern day. With the development of new media technologies, the Church must make sure it does not wilt under the glare of the public eye, and that it can withstand criticisms of the actions of the pope and his prelates. He must, therefore, develop his PR just like any other public figure.
Historically, canonisations have been prime political tools for the Vatican in improving the public image of the Church and consolidating or establishing relationships with foreign nations. This can be seen in the case of Pope Pius XI’s canonisation of Sir Thomas More in 1935. More’s sainthood was seen as a great honour by English non-Catholics and persuaded the British Foreign Office to send a delegation to the Vatican in 1938. This action would have been unthinkable before the canonisation, as the rift caused by Henry VIII’s split from the Church had never fully been healed and English Catholics were not altogether treated fairly or equally alongside the rest of the population.
Pius cleverly promoted not only the holy but the (somewhat ahistorical) moral reputation of More, likening his opposition to Henry VIII to the current struggle against Hitler’s tyranny. The English welcomed this new characterisation of a fellow countryman, and the press were eager to stress that opposing tyranny and arguing for the right to individual conscience were historically English traits. This canonisation was a resounding propaganda coup for Pius, who incidentally had just managed to claw back a degree of papal sovereignty from Mussolini with the 1929 Lateran Pacts, and was ready to reintroduce the Vatican as an actor on the world stage.
Similarly, in canonising John Paul II, Pope Francis hopes to convince the rest of the world of the Vatican’s ability to build bridges with foreign nations. Not only does John Paul’s promotion to sainthood appease the Polish Catholic community, it also draws attention to his reputation for globetrotting (he visited 129 countries during his pontificate) and his attempt to develop a meaningful relationship with the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths. By celebrating John Paul’s achievements, Francis hopes to emphasise the openness and inclusivity of the Church, demonstrating that it is an authoritative and down-to-earth modern institution.
There is another side to the double-canonisation. As always, the Church continues to hold debates amongst its own hierarchy with regards to doctrine and its practicalities. By canonising both John XXIII, a more progressive pope who called the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, a conservative with generally orthodox standpoints, Francis appeases and acknowledges both parties within the hierarchy. Reform is an ever-present issue, but Francis, only just into the second year of his pontificate, is clearly unwilling to take sides yet and is still shaping the character of his time as Pope.
This most recent canonisation, attended by 800,000 Catholic pilgrims and 93 worldwide government delegations, was clearly a success for Francis and has not only made history, but has also given today’s Catholics something to celebrate. But if Francis really wants to prove himself as an astute world leader, he will have to address the serious issue of the sex abuse scandal, which his predecessor failed to tackle, and decide whether to take a more liberal approach towards abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and women bishops. As always, the world – and the media – will be watching Francis as he continues to play out his role on the global stage.
Emma Newman is a final-year History student at Sheffield. Her second-year research project focused on the canonisation of Thomas More.