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BC Experts: Canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II

James Bretzke


Fr. Bretzke is a Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He is the author of 90 articles/reviews and seven books including A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology and Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary. He earned a doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he also taught for three years.  He has also taught for several years in Seoul, Korea at Sogang University and as a Visiting Professor of Moral Theology at the Loyola School of Theology of the Ateneo de Manila, Philippines.  On the weekends, Father Bretzke ministers at St. Michael's Parish in Bedford, Mass.

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Richard Spinello


Spinello is the author of The Genius of John Paul II:  The Great Pope’s Moral Wisdom, The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla’s Classic Work, along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.





The Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion members will be witnessing history on Sunday when the Vatican canonizes two popes at the same time – John XXIII and John Paul II. In an unprecedented ceremony, two wings of the church are being bridged, along with two integral chapters of the church's development.

"I think canonizing them both together is very significant because these two popes, to some extent, shape church history in the latter part of the 20th century," says Richard Spinello, Ph.D., who teaches a course on John Paul II at Boston College. "It's John XXIII who gives us the Second Vatican Council and it's John Paul II who devoted most of his work and teachings as Pope to try and interpret the Council and carry it forward."

“You have a pope that is more congenial to the liberals – that would be John XXIII – and you have one more congenial to the conservatives – John Paul II,” says Boston College School of Theology and Ministry Professor James Bretzke, S.J. “I think Pope Francis has done a master stroke bringing them together, essentially saying he's not going to go down one side or the other -- but that these are both legitimate strings in the Church and we want to be unified more than divided.”

Fr. Bretzke says Pope John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, was meant to be an interim pope – an older pope elected by cardinals who expected him to appoint more cardinals who would then elect his replacement.

“But he surprised them all by calling the Second Vatican Council, starting the Birth Control Commission, calling for the revision of the code of Canon Law and many other things," says Fr. Bretzke, an expert on papal affairs and author of seven books. "So he was a surprising pope and a pope of the people."

John Paul II, who reigned for almost 27 years until his death in 2005, was one of the most popular and charismatic popes, and was put on fast track for sainthood after his death.

"He has an extraordinary legacy - I think he is  truly one of the great popes of all times," says Spinello, author of the books The Genius of John Paul II:  The Great Pope's Moral Wisdom and The Encyclicals of John Paul II:  An Introduction and Commentary. "I think he will be called John Paul the Great. I think he clearly played a tremendous role in bringing down communism - everyone recognizes that. His great intellectual legacy is apparent if you look at his philosophical and theological writings.  He sets church teaching, which has gotten off track, onto the right track."

But some critics wonder why John Paul II is being made a saint so quickly, given his failure to rein in clergy sex abuse or his dealings with Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of a disgraced Catholic religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.

“Certainly that’s a fair criticism - these are frankly, aspects of his papacy that are not laudable and very few people are trying to rationalize this," says Fr. Bretzke, who studied and taught in Rome for seven years. "These were mistakes, clear mistakes and he’s not being canonized because of that."

"I think its fair to ask those questions," says Spinello. "With regards to the Legionnaires, no one has presented any evidence that John Paul II knew what was going on with the Legionaries, nor is there any evidence he knew much about the sex abuse scandal. I think there were isolated cases that the Vatican handled. He probably could have managed things a little bit better. John Paul II wasn't a perfect manager, but to be a saint you don't have to be perfect. You have to have sanctity, you have to have heroic virtue. I think he had those qualities."

"They’re both holy men, they’re committed to the Church and committed to Jesus  Christ - they’re in union with God and each of them in their own way shows us models or paths to holiness which is what we’re all called to," says Fr. Bretzke. "Another important point to keep in mind here is, what does canonization mean and what doesn’t it mean? At the most basic, minimalist understanding, canonization is the Church’s proclamation that we have moral certainties, that the individual is in union with God, so we believe that Pope John Paul II is with God in Heaven, the same with Pope John XXIII. We’re not asked to say by making this person or that person a saint that everything that they did while alive is perfect or heroic. It also isn’t saying we’re canonizing necessarily their whole basic policies.”


Media Note: Contact information for additional Boston College faculty sources on a range of subjects is available at: /offices/pubaf/journalist/experts.html


Sean Hennessey
Associate Director
Office of News and Public Affairs
Boston College

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