Chicago-area Catholics are among the throngs welcoming the canonization Sunday of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII, two men credited with helping the church transition into the modern era and who left their imprint on the world.
It’s the first time in the Roman Catholic Church’s history that two former popes will be made saints simultaneously — a move seen as an effort by Pope Francis to help unify the church given that both popular popes had fans and critics.
Orland Park resident Janine Duda organized a group of 40 to travel to Rome to witness the event. She decided to attend out of her admiration for John Paul II, the only Polish pope to date, and who became the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years when he was elected in 1978.
“I was there for his inauguration in Rome and then for his funeral, for his beatification and now . . . for the canonization,” said Duda, who is Polish.
She added that she arranged pilgrimages to Rome and had private audiences with John Paul II.
“It’s very, very emotional,” she said of the canonization. “You cannot express yourself in words how happy we are that we know [him], that we touch his hands, kiss his ring and talk to him [while he was pope], and he will be a saint now. . . . The whole world loved him.”
The focus is on John XXIII at his namesake school in Evanston. A celebration is planned there Sunday.
“It’s not every day that the patron of your school is made a saint,” Principal Jeff Taylor said. “Every school I’ve been at has already been St. someone or someone else. This is the first time it’s ever happened for me, and I’m sure it’s the first time it’s ever happened for pretty much everybody here. We look at it and we go, ‘Wow, this is once in a lifetime, we really should celebrate.’ ”
Patrick Taylor, 11, is proud his school bears the name of John XXIII, who served as pope from 1958-63.
“I love how Pope John’s influence was so good that he gets to be a saint,” said Taylor, a sixth-grader.
John XXIII shocked the world when he called the Second Vatican Council, said Graziano Marcheschi, executive director, university mission and ministry at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
“He was elected basically to be a do-nothing, caretaker pope,” Marcheschi said. “The cardinals weren’t sure who they wanted to elect. There wasn’t a lot of consensus among them, so they agreed on a compromise — an elderly cardinal who would only be around for a few years and wouldn’t shake things up too much. Much to their shock, he called a council that completely transformed the church.”
Meanwhile, John Paul II, during his more than 26-year reign, “really was the one who saw that the reforms of Vatican II would be enacted,” Marcheschi said.
Among changes brought about as a result of Vatican II was making it possible for the liturgy to be done in the language of each particular country and improving relations with other faiths.
“Improving Catholic-Jewish relations was a huge contribution that Pope John Paul II made,” Marcheschi said.
John Paul II, who has been called one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century, is credited with helping end communism in Poland, where he survived the Nazi occupation. He was renowned for reaching out to world leaders and his flock, and he targeted young people with his founding of Youth Day. As bishop of Rome, he visited 317 of the city’s 333 parishes, and the well-traveled pope made more than 100 pastoral visits outside of Italy, including to Chicago.
Cardinal Francis George never met John XXIII, but described him at a press conference as a man known for his simplicity, straightforwardness and “keen insight into the needs of the church and of the human race.”
George remembered John Paul II as “down to earth . . . a genius, a poet and philosopher and a saint . . . when you talked to him alone you had the sense that he was also having a conversation with the Lord. There were always three people in that conversation.”
John Paul II named George archbishop of Chicago, and George met with him several times.
The two popes have their critics. For John XXIII, some think that “perhaps he unleashed something that did more harm than good,” with Vatican II, Marcheschi said. John Paul II has been criticized for failing to do more to tackle the priest child sex abuse scandal and for his opposition to contraception and women serving in the priesthood.
George said both popes meet the criteria to be a saint, including “that you’re well-known as a holy person . . . it’s the voice of the people saying they recognize in this man or this woman the presence of God at work.”
George, who was unable to travel to Rome because of his battle with cancer, will lead a special canonization Mass on Sunday afternoon at Holy Name Cathedral.