Popes John Paul II, John XXIII: A Saint's Cousin on Being a Pilgrim in St. Peter's Square for a Canonization

Getty ImagesThe double canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII on April 24 is bringing travelers to Rome and Vatican City.
On April 27, Pope Francis will host a spiritual doubleheader of sorts in Rome for two of Catholicism's most illustrious leaders: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The late popes –- the former who sought to modernize the church through Vatican II, and latter who is credited with helping to topple Communism in Eastern Europe –- will be canonized this Sunday. In effect, they will, as saints, join the church's eternal hall of fame. And it's estimated that two million travelers will be in Rome to witness their canonizations.

In doing so, they may well be greeted in heaven by my cousin. I don't mean to name drop. It's not a name you're apt to know. But whenever a pope hosts a canonization, I am compelled to remember Padre Gaetano Catanoso, a humble parish priest and contemporary of my paternal grandfather from southern Italy. Gaetano served the poorest of the poor in Calabria for more than 60 years. He built orphanages between the world wars. He founded an order of nuns. He stood up to the mafia. Following his death in 1963, he was credited with two healing miracles.

For all this, Gaetano was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. That's my cousin. My cousin the saint. So maybe you'll forgive the name dropping. After all, he has an edge on the famous popes headed his way. He has one more miracle than they do.

On that memorable day, my family and I –- more than 60 of us from America, each of us bursting with pride –- crowded into St. Peter's Square for what was Benedict's first canonization ceremony. Rome goes crazy for these events. Stores and restaurants, not to mention buses and cars, are festooned with posters of the saints-to-be. Everywhere we looked in the vicinity of the Vatican, we saw our family name and cousin's gentle smile. We felt like special guests at a giddy global block party.
Amid the crowd in St. Peter's Square in 2005, Calabrians faithful to St. Gaetano wave a flag and signs with his image.
Justin CantanosoAmid the crowd in St. Peter's Square in 2005, Calabrians faithful to St. Gaetano wave a flag and signs with his image.

And that was before we wedged ourselves with tens of thousands of others into the middle of St. Peter's Square for the canonization itself. There are few gathering places on earth more grand and gorgeous than St. Peter's. Bernini's arching colonnade seemed to embrace us. The flute-like voices of the Vatican boys choir filled the air. An enormous banner of our cousin, hanging between the columns of the St. Peter's Basilica, looked ethereal in the distance. A kind of spiritual energy permeated the crowd as red-clad bishops from around the world flanked the pope dressed all in white. And there atop the colonnade, the travertine statues of 140 ancient saints stared down on us. As I returned their stony gaze, I thought, "Make room for Gaetano."

If you're not Catholic, it's likely you don't care about the quirky rules that guide saint making. If you are Catholic, it's likely you simply don't know. But there are rules. And they've evolved over time.
One thing that drove Martin Luther from the Catholic Church in the 16th century was the often corrupt way that local church leaders named saints. Bishops had that authority back then. With enough cash, your cousin could be made a saint, too. By the late 1500s, the Vatican wrested full control of the process. An office was established, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which would vet the lives of all candidates to ensure they were worthy -- only after they had been dead for 50 years. A devil's advocate, acting as prosecutor, would try to poke holes in the cause. Two miracles were needed for beatification; two additional miracles were needed for canonization.

By the early 1980s, Pope John Paul II concluded the process was broken. It took too long. It was too adversarial. What few saints were named sparked little interest since no one alive knew who they were. John Paul changed the rules. With Catholicism losing ground to more charismatic religions globally, he viewed the grand spectacle of canonization as a sure-fire way to invigorate the faithful. So he shortened the waiting period from 50 years to five. He reduced by half the number of miracles needed. He canned the devil's advocate. This enabled John Paul II to name more saints -- 482 in his 26-year papacy -- than all previous popes combined in the preceding four centuries.

My cousin was a clear beneficiary of John Paul's fast track. His path to sainthood took just 25 years from the time his cause was initiated. And he does have two miracles -- two women whose grave illnesses were cured, the Vatican declared, through prayers to Gaetano. Those two popes set for ascension? They have just one miracle apiece.

That's a papal prerogative. The pope gets to decide which rules to bend. John Paul II waived the five-year waiting period for Mother Teresa and launched her cause for canonization just two years after her death in 1997.

And Pope Francis is bending the rules to speed up sainthood for his predecessors. With all the problems Francis needs to confront, from priestly sex scandals to the oppression of nuns, who could blame him for wanting to divert attention for a day for something as sublime as a canonization in St. Peter's Square. Plus, my cousin is no doubt eager to welcome the newcomers.

Justin Catanoso is the author of My Cousin the Saint, A Story of Love, Miracles, and an Italian Family Reunited (Harper Perennial) and director of journalism at Wake Forest University.

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