The problem with saints is halos.
That nimbus encircling their heads has been used by artists to denote saints since the third century. While useful for quick recognition, halos separate saints from the rest of us, who, let’s face it, ain’t.
Which is why Sunday’s canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II offers us a chance to ponder, if only briefly, what living a saintly life requires. It does not mean never having sinned. After all, St. Paul, whose letters comprise a good chunk of the New Testament, boasted of his role in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli, was one of 13 children of a farmhand. Aged 76 when he was elected pope in 1958, he was supposed to be a placeholder. Instead, he rocked the Catholic Church in four years later by convening the second Vatican Council, a three-year journey of literal soul-searching that forced a sclerotic institution to confront the modern world. Many Catholics were thrilled with the modernization it produced; others, disgusted, never went to Mass again.
John Paul II, whom non-Catholics might best remember for being Polish, or anti-communist, was one of the most influential people of the 20th Century. The former Karol Wojtyla’s brio, his warm love for humanity and hatred of oppression were undeniable factors in the fall of the Soviet Union, a political earthquake whose implications he could not have known.
Both popes managed to cut through the clouds of incense around them and project a human face to the world. On the eve of the Council’s opening, John told a moonlit crowd of the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square: “Tonight when you go home, caress your children, and tell them it’s a caress from the pope.” That tender, concise message became famous, and this was before Twitter.
John Paul, an accomplished actor in his youth, grew accustomed during his world travels to hearing the chant, “J-P-Two; we love you!” and delighted his admirers by responding in accented English, “J-P-Two; he love you too.” For him, the goal was not to preach, but to reach.
John, known as the Good Pope for his affable pastoral style, and John Paul the Great, who deftly put the kibosh on some of the excesses of Vatican II, are liberal and conservative icons of the faith. Sinners like the rest of us, they had secrets, cut deals, made enemies and played political favorites. But they brought Christ’s message of love to millions of people who had failed, or forgotten, to think about God’s place in their lives.
By canonizing both popes at once, their successor, Pope Francis, is compressing the ideological edges of the Catholic Church. This Jesuit pope is thinking well beyond the symbolism of the ceremony, to the practical tasks he faces.
In his ongoing drive to convert the Vatican from a repository for frescoes and statues into a sanctuary for the poor and powerless, Francis must break some eggs. And some of those eggs wear red hats. Francis needs to be seen as an equal opportunity disrupter.
The appointment of Australian Cardinal George Pell to head the new Secretariat for the Economy was largely overlooked by the media. Yet this blunt-tongued former archbishop of Sydney has been empowered to rattle cages and bank vaults in Rome, and put the church’s opaque finances in order.
Further down the road, Francis might expand the College of Cardinals – the body that elects a new pope – beyond the current 120 voting members, and skew it markedly in favor of the developing world. Since he himself broke the European stranglehold on the papacy, Francis is likely to want the trend continued by his eventual successor.
Francis’ warm words and humble actions have already regenerated a Church that, as it did in John’s time, sometimes seems out of touch with the real world. Now he must follow through on the possibilities he has dangled before the hungry faithful. He will need more than a halo to make that happen. He will need friends in high places. Now he has two.
John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."