Popes who were transformed by the grace of Christ

Canonisation is a sign their lives are worth emulating

The two Popes who are being canonised are both deeply loved, but perhaps for different reasons. 

Pope John XXIII had an immense warmth and wisdom. There are so many anecdotes about his self-deprecating humour. For example, once when he was showing visitors around his Vatican apartments, he gazed sadly at little, narrow satin slippers that were far too small for his large feet. “All part of the plot to keep me from leaving,” he whispered to his visitor.

Another favourite story of mine about him is how he practised the correct form of address before meeting Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

“Mrs Kennedy, Mrs Kennedy,” he muttered to himself as he walked up and down. When he met her, he threw out his arms in delight: “Jackie!”

He was a man of immense courage, and when he was the Apostolic Nuncio in Turkey was actively involved with saving Jewish children from the Nazi extermination camps. He was also appointed as nuncio to France after the war, a very delicate situation where the issue of what to do with bishops who had collaborated with the Nazis loomed large.

And, of course, he instituted the Second Vatican Council, which for the first time in centuries recognised the central role of lay people.


In one version of Church history, Pope John XXIII is the great reformer, and Pope John Paul II is the one who desperately tried to end reforms. It is, of course, a cartoon version. Both Popes were faithful to the roots of Christianity, but open to the particular challenges of the era they found themselves in.

“Fidelity to roots is not a mechanical copying of the past. Fidelity to roots is always creative, ready to descend into the depths, open to new challenges.”

It was Pope John Paul II who said that, by the way. As a young man, he made a significant contribution to ‘Scheme XIII’ which was to become the Pastoral Constitution of the council on the Church in the Modern World,Gaudium et Spes, and to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium.

Pope John Paul was, of course, shaped by his experience of living under a repressive, atheistic regime, but he was no fan of greedy capitalism, either. He had immense charisma, but I really grew to love him as he grew old and frail.

I believe Benedict XVI was following the whispering of the Holy Spirit when he took the unprecedented step of retiring, and I believe John Paul did the same when he carried his cross to the end.

John Paul had been a tireless, vital Pope who went skiing and mountain climbing, and travelled the world. By allowing us to see his gradual descent into old age and ill health, he provided us with a wonderful example of how suffering can mellow and shape someone, and how it is not glamour that ultimately matters, but fidelity.


Of course, there are valid criticisms of Pope John Paul, that he was never greatly interested in governance, and that he allowed power-seeking elements too much free reign as he grew more old and frail.

The great blot on his record is how much access Fr Marcial Maciel had to him. The founder of the Legionaries of Christ is one of the most profoundly disturbing characters one could encounter. Dan Brown would have been proud of him as a creation, so grotesquely out of step was he with what he claimed to be, being both a sexual abuser and someone who had set up homes with two different women.

If John Paul was so saintly, why could he not sense what was going on? What I found interesting was Pope Benedict, the one who finally tackled Fr Maciel – and remember, there were complaints about the founder of the Legionaries going back to the time of John XXIII – also hastened the cause for John Paul’s beatification.

No one could have known the flaws of John Paul better, as they worked so closely together when Benedict was still Cardinal Ratzinger.


Canonisation is not an endorsement of every belief that someone holds. If it were, no-one would be canonised. For example, one of the saints most revered for his courage in following his conscience, St Thomas More, found it acceptable that state authorities should burn heretics, once all attempts to persuade them of the error of their ways had failed.

Canonisation is a recognition of an attempt to become so infused by the grace of Christ that the human being is gradually transformed. It does not mean that they achieved perfection, but that their obedience and love is worth emulation.

Some will still argue that the canonisation of John XXIII was overdue, but that John Paul’s should have been delayed. Personally, I prefer to trust Francis on this one. He has been sure-footed so far.