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Popes John Paul II and John XXIII: a rush to sainthood?

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"One of the questions here is whether a pope can be a saint and also make managerial mistakes," Thavis said, "and I think Vatican officials would say yes. Most people would agree that, as bad as the sex abuse scandal has been, it cannot be used to define John Paul’s legacy."

In fact, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that a canonization was expected to generate debate within the church and no one was saying the pope was "perfect."

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"No one says the pope is infallible," he said. "Someone might say John Paul is likable; others say less so. This is the beauty of the church."

While millions of Catholics remember John Paul, far fewer recall John, known as "the good pope," but he remains a popular figure in Italy and a patron saint of the church’s more progressive wing.

"When he was elected, he urged us to do more for the sick and those who suffer," recalled Paola Pesaresi, a former schoolteacher from the city of Rimini. "He was like a father, like a friend. I remember I cried when he died."

‘No one doubts his virtues’

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, John was the fourth of 14 children and came from the region of Lombardy. His brief pontificate lasted from 1958 until his death from cancer in 1963, yet the aftershocks of his papacy continued to rattle the church.

He revolutionized the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which reviewed doctrine, replaced the Latin Mass with vernacular language and opened up the church to a broader ecumenical agenda.

His postulator, the Rev. Giovanni Giuseppe Califano, said John had "the perfume of his sainthood" when he was a priest, bishop and pope. When John’s sainthood was announced last year, Lombardi deflected questions about the process, saying, "No one doubts his virtues."

John’s sainthood may have been fast-tracked to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, but others such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was beatified in 2003, are still waiting.

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"Every canonization is a public relations exercise, in the sense that it promotes what the Catholic Church considers a saintly life," Thavis said. "What makes canonizing popes more problematic is that they bring with them the politics of their pontificates. And although the church tries to keep the focus on personal holiness, most people see it as a judgment on their performance as pope."

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