Going by the book, Pope John XXIII should have had to wait for a second miracle to be proved before being elevated to the sainthood. It is a sign of the new mood in the Catholic Church – as well as the mood that has always surrounded that particular pontiff, described by one papal historian as “the most beloved Pope in history” – that no-one has made a big fuss about this bending of the rules.
John Paul II, the Polish Pope, has been bustling towards the company of saints since the crowds in St Peter’s Square roared “Santo subito!” (“Make him a saint at once!”) at his funeral in 2005. John XXIII, who died 42 years earlier, has been waiting in the non-speedy boarding line all these years.
So it was imaginative of the new Pope, Francis, to bring their fans together, to turn the Polish Pope’s big day into a carnival for the Church as a whole: conservatives and liberals, heirs of the permissive 1960s and those who have set their face against all such deviations, thrown together, obliged to share each others’ joys. It’s the act of a man with a sense of humour, and possibly a grain of sadism. Also – in his nonchalant waiving of the rules – with a keen sense of his own regal power, and a willingness to use it.
One seasoned Italian Vatican observer said of Francis’s decision to bump John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli before his elevation) to the front of the queue: “He wanted to make someone he really likes a saint.” That rings true. They are popes out of the same box. When Francis came on to the balcony of St Peter’s after his election and said “Buona sera” – as if meeting a family of church-goers in the town piazza after Mass, rather than presenting himself as the freshly-crowned monarch of an institution one billion-strong – the resonance was already clear to the liberal Catholics who have been waiting since 1963 for some good news.
Angelo Roncalli, the fat Pope, the good Pope, the smiling Pope, was also the Pope of surprises. On his election it was explained that this obscure and harmless Vatican diplomat, deep into his retirement job as Patriarch of Venice, would mind the shop for a few uncontroversial years, allowing the Church to get its breath back after the long, controversial reign of Pius XII, widely denounced for not standing up to Hitler, before going for someone with a bit more vim.
But it seems that however much the cardinals in conclave brood, plot and pray, they never know what will become of a common-or-garden cleric once he dons, Clark Kent-like, those papal robes. Who could have foreseen the way John Paul II tore around the world, turning himself into the first celebrity Pope? Who could have imagined that his subtle, self-effacing doctrine-chopper Joseph Ratzinger would turn out to be such a serial blunderer once installed as Benedict XVI?
A shy, devout child of poor farmers from Bergamo who shared the ground floor of their home with the cows, Roncalli was apparently a lovable man all his life. His long diplomatic service in bastions of Islam and the Orthodox Church allowed him to see the Church as it was seen by others, and not to be blinded by its grandeur or its claims to unique truth.
Although Bergamo is a byword for northern Italian enterprise and business sense, he was more like an Italian from the south. He had a genial sense of his limitations which could easily be confused with laziness; he smoked cigarettes, the first and perhaps the last Pope to do so, he clearly didn’t diet with any success. When it was pointed out to him that half the people on his staff seemed to be taking it very easy, he shrugged and smiled. “What can I do?” he said. “I am only the Pope!”
And then he stunned the world by calling a General Council, summoning thousands of bishops to Rome, as well as senior Protestants and members of the Orthodox churches, to thrash out Christianity’s duty in a world that was changing fast. The Vatican’s officials were appalled by the idea, did all in their power to stop it, and once that failed tried their best to turn it into a bureaucratic stamping exercise, a reiteration of the Church’s established positions.
But Roncalli was having none of it: despite his advanced age, he insisted in seeing good things in the way the world was changing – in the decline of imperialism, the improvement of working people’s conditions and the higher profile enjoyed by women – and was in no doubt that the Church was in need of bringing up to date. Although he died years before Vatican II, as it is called, reached its reforming conclusions, his was its guiding spirit.
Of course non-Catholics, not to mention non-Christians, have every right to laugh up their sleeves at the Vatican’s saintly assembly line: getting into the company of saints is becoming a posthumous papal perk, rather in the way that ex-government ministers at Westminster ascend to the House of Lords. It doesn’t necessarily mean much, except for the million or so expected to turn up at St Peter’s on Sunday, for whom it will mean a great deal.
It certainly doesn’t mean these men were infallible during their lifetimes. Let the good Pope have the last word on that: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly,” he once said, “and I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”