VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Friday cleared Pope John Paul II for sainthood, approving a miracle attributed to his intercession and setting up a remarkable dual canonization along with another beloved pope, John XXIII.
In a major demonstration of his papal authority, Francis decided to make John XXIII a saint even though the Vatican hasn't confirmed a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The Vatican said Francis had the power to dispense with the normal saint-making procedures to canonize John on his own merits.
To anyone who has been paying attention, Francis' decision to canonize both should come as no surprise: He was made a cardinal by John Paul and is very much a pope of the Second Vatican Council, the ground-breaking church meetings that brought the Catholic Church into the modern world which John XXIII opened a year before his death in 1963.
The council opened the church to people of other faiths and allowed for Mass to be celebrated in the languages of the faithful, rather than Latin.
John Paul, who was pope from 1978-2005, revolutionized the papacy, traveling the world and inspiring a generation of young Catholics to be excited about their faith. He was the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian in 455 years -- a legacy that continued with the German-born Benedict XVI and Francis.
On the anniversary of John Paul's death this year, Francis prayed at the tombs of both John Paul and John XXIII -- an indication that he sees a great personal and spiritual continuity in them.
Benedict spent much of his pontificate trying to correct what he considered wrong interpretations of Vatican II, insisting it wasn't the break from the past that liberals believed.
While not disagreeing outright with Benedict, Francis seems to take a more progressive read of Vatican II and its call to go out into the world and spread the faith -- a priority he has shown in the first months of his pontificate.
The canonization ceremony is expected before the end of the year.
Polish media on Friday continued to press for an October canonization, to mark the 35th anniversary of John Paul's 1978 election, but Vatican officials have said that's too soon to organize such a massive event. Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major feast day for the church, has also been floated as a possibility.
The canonization nnouncement came shortly after the release of Francis' first encyclical, a meditation on faith that is unique because it was written with someone else: Benedict XVI.
Benedict's hand is evident throughout much of the first three chapters of "The Light of Faith," with his theological style, concerns and reference points clear.
Francis' priorities come through strongest in the final chapter, where the Argentine Jesuit insists on the role of faith in serving the common good and giving hope to those who suffer. It includes his first clear statement as pope on marriage being a union between man and woman with the aim of creating children.
The encyclical didn't appear to break new ground in church teaching; its novelty was entirely in the dual authorship, and that it was the first of Francis' nascent pontificate.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that the miracle that brought John Paul to the ranks of sainthood concerned a Costa Rican woman.
The Spanish newspaper La Razon has identified her as Floribeth Mora, and said she suffered from a cerebral aneurism that was inexplicably cured on May 1, 2011 -- the day of John Paul's beatification, when 1.5 million people filled St. Peter's Square to honor the beloved Polish pontiff.
La Razon reported last month that Mora awoke with debilitating head pain on April 8 and went to the hospital, where her condition worsened to the point that she was sent home with only a month to live.
Her family prayed to John Paul, and the aneurism disappeared.
La Razon quoted her doctor, Dr. Alejandro Vargas, as saying: "It surprised me a lot that the aneurism disappeared, I can't explain it based on science."
The Associated Press has traveled to Mora's home in Costa Rica but has been told that she is bound by secrecy and cannot discuss her case.
The Vatican's complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify a "miracle" was performed through the intercession of the candidate -- a medically inexplicable cure that is lasting, immediate and can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization.
Then-Pope Benedict XVI put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his John Paul's death. Benedict was responding to chants of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately" which erupted during John Paul's funeral.
There is some concern that the process has been too quick. Some of the Holy See's deep-seated problems -- clerical sex abuse, dysfunctional
governance and more recently the financial scandals at the Vatican bank -- essentially date from shortcomings of his pontificate.
Thus the decision to canonize John Paul along with John XXIII can be seen as trying to balance those concerns.
Such was the case in 2000, when John Paul beatified John XXIII, dubbed the "good pope," alongside Pope Pius IX, who was criticized by Jews for condoning the seizure of a Jewish boy and allegedly referring to Jews as dogs.
Asked how John XXIII, elected in 1958, could be canonized without a second miracle, Lombardi insisted that many theologians believe that isn't required and that a canonization can take place based on the first miracle required for beatification. He said Francis had approved a decision by the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican's saint-making office.
"Certainly the pope has the power, in a certain sense, to dispense of the second miracle in a cause, and this is what happened," Lombardi said.
He stressed that this decision didn't represent any relaxing of the Vatican's overall standards for canonization, but represented a unique situation, given that the church this year is marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.
"John XXIII is someone who we know is beloved in the church, we're in the 50th anniversary of the Council which he started, and I don't think any of us have any doubts about his virtues," Lombardi said.
In Poland, the reaction was overjoyed, as expected.
Rev. Kazimierz Sowa, the head of Religion TV channel, said on TVN that Poles are expected to flood to Rome for the ceremony.
"John Paul II was extremely popular during his lifetime and he still continues to inspire people," Sowa said. But he insisted that an October date was preferable, to accommodate the throngs expected at the outdoor ceremony.
"In their interest, I think we should expect the canonization in the fall," he said.