The last time the world lost a pope and then welcomed his replacement, my late wife and I were living in Florence. We learned the news of both events in April 2005 by the pealing of church bells. The death of John Paul II was announced by the bells at about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night as we walked home from a restaurant. We knew without asking what the sound meant. In recent days, everybody’s favourite pope had been little more than “a soul pulling a body” in the words of a Vatican spokesman.
Two weeks later, I was writing at my desk, when the bells of Giotto’s Campanile began tolling outside the window of our apartment in the historic centre of Florence. They usually rang around 5:30 p.m., but wasn’t it a bit later? I checked, and it was 6:12. I knew the ringing must mean a new pope, and indeed, Benedict XVI had been chosen.
The cardinals have now picked his successor, Francis. This time around, I heard by word of mouth, a less musical means. When John Paul II died, people gathered on the steps of the Duomo and said solemnly to each other, santo subito, a saint soon. Benedict XVI should have sped along the sainthood of his predecessor but he didn’t. Francis must complete the process.
He can’t match the pace set by St. Francis of Assisi, whose name he has taken. That Francis was made a saint within two years of his death, a record set in the thirteenth century that still stands. The Catholic Church was in trouble in those days, too. Much of the lore we know about St. Francis was fabricated by the Vatican to improve its image. The Catholic Church again needs to renew itself through healing and hope. The elevation of John Paul II would be a good place to start.