Utahns joined Roman Catholics the world over looking forward to Sunday and the canonization of two giants of modern Christianity. It will be historic — the first time two popes are canonized at the same time.
That sainthood would be bestowed upon John XXIII and John Paul II by Pope Francis has buoyed Catholics in Utah, who recalled the men as examples of what clergy and parishioners alike can aspire to through faith.
“The canonization isn’t so much about the saint as it is about what it means to the church,” said Rev. John Norman, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul parish. “It’s for the members of the church to grow in faith.”
What’s “somewhat unique,” he added, is that John XXIII, who died in 1963, and John Paul II, who died in 2005, entered sainthood relatively shortly after their deaths.
“These are men that are part of my memory and part of my experience,” Norman said, noting that John Paul II traveled extensively throughout the world and was met by huge crowds. “Imagine how many people can say, ‘Oh, yes. I saw a saint.’ That will assist people living in faith.”
The canonizations are not without controversy, however. Particularly that of John Paul II, whose papacy was plagued by scandals of child sex abuse at the hands of priests.
Nonetheless, millions are expected to pour into Rome and surge into the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square for the historic occasion.
For Salt Lake resident Dixie Smith, the celebration will be a bit quieter. She will attend Mass and perhaps clip articles for her grandchildren so they may remember the day.
John XXIII opened the church to the laity and expanded the role of Catholic women, Smith said. And she recalled John Paul II “as a breath of fresh air” who made the church more accessible to youths.
“Having known of these people and their flaws and their greatness and the recognition of their saintliness gives hope to everybody,” she said. “They were popes of change and that will help others move to [a better] Christianity.”
These canonizations, however, leave Colleen McDannell, religious studies professor at the University of Utah, to ponder this question: What does making popes into saints say about Catholic devotional life?
Saints, such as St. Francis, have traditionally exemplified individual lives of charity and compassion, McDannell said. Popes, on the other hand, sit atop a massive hierarchy, making decisions that are inescapably political and often involve compromise.
McDannell, the author of “The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America,” also wonders whether a hierarchical leader can be a spiritual force.
“This seems to be part of our modern obsession with fame. In other words, saints as celebrities — not the humble person who works in the food kitchen.”
Although John XXIII became a global figure with the Vatican II Council in the early 1960s that refocused the Catholic Church, he came from humble beginnings — a farmer’s son, recalled the Rev. Rick Sherman, associate pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church in Cedar City.
“Out of relative obscurity, he called a worldwide council and redirected the church,” Sherman said. “The Vatican council was called at a time when the world was changing massively and the church had to be more engaged” with Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
John Paul II was a more erudite man — a writer, a teacher, a philosopher. Not least, he was a Polish bishop who stared down communism. But the ongoing sex scandal of his papacy remains a difficult matter, Sherman said.
“It’s certainly arguable about what he could have done differently,” Sherman said. “The position the church has taken is that it was learning about the extent of the sex abuse along with everybody else. I don’t know how much influence the pope would have had on this situation — a global situation.”
Among the many good things that John Paul II brought to the world was an immediacy to the church and God, he said. “A lot of people saw him and looked to him to share in their lives.”
The significance of sainthood for many Catholics is “that the saints are actually in heaven with God,” Sherman said. “That’s cause for joy in and of itself. Their potential for influence is now even greater.”
For Salt Lake City Catholic Virginia Silcox, saints are important because they make for a better life.
“They become larger than life,” Silcox said. “It just happens. I don’t know why it happens, but we need it.”
Humanity needs these examples to show us that obstacles can be overcome, she added.
“It’s easy to become filled with despair and we can look up to them as people who have transcended that,” she said. “It brings us joy because we need models in our lives. And it gives us hope — hope more than joy, perhaps.”
Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.