On April 27, in an event unprecedented in the history of the modern Catholic Church and the Vatican, two former Popes, John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, an Italian) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, a Pole) were proclaimed saints. The grand ceremony was presided over by the current Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentine), with the participation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger, a German).
Catholics all over the world enthusiastically watched the event on television and the Internet. About 500,000 of the faithful showed up in St. Peter’s Square and an estimated 300,000 more watched on giant TV screens around Rome. Also in attendance were 6,000 priests and nuns; 130 cardinals; 2,200 journalists and dignitaries from 93 delegations.
Still, the outcome of the event did not meet the expectations of the organizers, the Vatican and the city of Rome, despite meticulous planning and the expenditure of at least eight million euros. They were hoping for three million people in the square and much more favorable coverage of the new saints and their church, but the rush to canonize John Paul II just nine years after his death and the present-day problems of the church and its prelates regarding sexual abuse and pederasty exerted a negative influence.
Unlike John XXIII, who reigned for just five years and was widely acclaimed as a saint soon after he died, John Paul II was a controversial but enormously popular pope, not only for his constant travels around the world during his 27-year papacy and his fierce opposition to Communism at whatever cost, but also for his struggle against the progressive policies initiated by John XXIII and his tolerance and concealment of abuses by many of his priests.
Many experts consider the elevation of these two important Vatican personages (with nearly opposite histories) to sainthood, in the same ceremony, no more than an internal political agreement seen as obligatory for Pope Francis and his new and open administration and pushed by the dark forces of conservatism and corruption that are still entrenched in the Vatican.
It is certainly no secret that the Catholic Church has increasingly lost members in recent decades, or that its former strength and ideological dominance over millions has been eroded by its resistance to rapid and worldwide scientific and technological advances and new ways of thinking and living—as well as by its closeness to and support for those who exert power and abuse people in the many countries where the church still has credibility and control.
In 1962, in an attempt to modernize this ossified church—accused of oppression, of protecting the powerful and even of aiding the Nazis—John XXIII convened Vatican Council II, espousing a policy of modern change and unprecedented openness. With John XXIII’s untimely death in 1963, it fell to Paul VI to consummate and finalize the essentials of the council in 1965. From this council came the important Theology of Liberation, which was originated in Latin America by radical bishops and priests and sought to recover the doctrine of Jesus Christ and its concern for the poor and dispossessed of the world. The Theology of Liberation also advocated struggle against the dictatorial abuses of the time and took a risky position between the Cold War powers: the United States and the Soviet Union.
Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 and began fighting the new policy with all his conservative strength, allying himself with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and even supporting dictators like Pinochet and Videla. He was against the Sandinista movement and other libertarian causes and used his authority to change the prelate structure in Latin America, eliminating or minimizing the power of bishops and priests supportive of the movement and giving powerful positions to those who opposed it.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Theology of Liberation movement, the church began to face widespread accusations of sexual abuse of children by priests. The first cases came to light in the United States and were brought to justice, but the unwillingness of the church to deal with the problem has been both persistent and costly. There are hundreds of cases pending worldwide, and the power of the church and its conservative allies continues to block the punishment of perpetrators as the protected and cassocked criminals continue to wreak havoc.
The initial enthusiasm generated by Pope Francis and his emphasis on humility and poverty has been decaying as time goes by, and doesn’t seem to have a great deal of influence on many of the bishops and priests’ attitudes and lifestyles. Much work needs to be done, not only so that the church survives, but also for the exercise of a truly Christian doctrine.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico.