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Tomorrow the Church will celebrate the making of two new Saints – John Paul the Great and John XXIII. I use my words with care. The Church does not make anyone a saint, it recognises the infallible signs that someone is a saint; it is God who makes saints. Yes, we are all, before Bosco reminds us, ‘saints’, but the Church has, from very early on, recognised the heroic virtues and signs of special sanctity of certain individuals. There is a common misunderstanding, exemplified here as are so many common misunderstandings, by Bosco, to the effect that unless a man or woman is perfect, they cannot be a saint; this is not so; not one of us is without sin, and even the Virgin Mary needed to be redeemed of it by her son, as she was at the moment of her own conception. The rights and wrongs of the Blessed John Paul’s dealing with Louis Marciel are a matter of debate amongst those interested in truth, but one of dogmatic certainty to those with a position to defend or prosecute; they are irrelevant to the issue of his sanctity; to repeat, it is God who has made him a saint, not the Church.

The media, as is its wont, pontificate on the significance of this canonisation. It is, we are told by some, a clever attempt at triangulation – by canonising the Pope responsible for convening the Second Vatican Council and a Pope of conservative leanings, we are told that Pope Francis is appealing for unity. One assumes that the religious editor of the Huffington Postย has never met those self-styled Traditionalists who object to the Blessed John Paul for a host of reasons (most of which will no doubt appear in the comments boxes here in due course); his ‘insights’ into the mind of Pope Francis may be worth the paper they are written on, but they lack depth.

Both Popes have one thing in common, and it is something which Pope Francis also has – optimism. None of the three saw himself as the custodian of a museum. Their optimism was, and is, in itself, an heroic virtue in the face of the problems the Church always faces. The easy option was the one taken by so many of their predecessors, that is to circle the wagons and adopt a defensive posture, repelling, where possible, the assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil, and where not, ceding ground and drawing the wagons into a smaller circle. This was not the way of St Peter, neither was it that of Popes such as Leo the Great. If any Pope could have been forgiven pessimism, it was Leo, who watch the barbarians occupy Rome, who watch Attila and his Huns approach it, and who saw the civilisation of centuries tremble on the edge of destruction; but he stood his ground, he stood up to Attila and he refused to let the disputes over the two natures of Christ paralyse the Church. Though it is common to say his ‘Tome’ caused the split at Chalcedon, it would be more accurate to say that it was the determination of the Alexandrians to assert the position of their See which did that; their reward was to be 1500 years (thus far) of Muslim domination.

It is natural for many of us to be attached to a conservative position and to dislike change. But the one thing which is inevitable is change, and the question for intelligent conservatives is not how to prevent change, as that is impossible, but how to ensure two things: that change, where it happens, aligns with the best of the traditions to which we are heir; and that the pace of change is not too fast. History has few laws, but one of them is that where change does not happen for a long time, when it comes it does so at a dizzying and destructive pace. If we compare the history of England in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries with that of France, the point is clear. Charles I had many Christian virtues, but his stubborn refusal to recognised the need for change brought violent revolution to his country. When his son, James, was equally stupid, his chief subjects declined to re-run the devastation of the previous decades, and Britain began a path of peaceful change, which not even the French and Russian revolutions were able to shift. Compare that to theย ancien regimes of France and Russia, where prolonged refusal to change led to revolutions which devastated those countries, and where there is still a want of stability.

Something similar happened with the Catholic Church. John XXIII recognised the need to adapt, but underestimated the forces which would use his initiative to make changes he had never wanted; but the Holy Ghost guides the Church, and the frantic cheering of the sexagenarians of ACTA every time they think Pope Francis is going to enact one of their reforms, shows the extent to which what they thought would happen has not. Much of that is dues to John Paul II, who unlike most of us, had experienced real persecution at the hands of the two most Godless regimes of the early twentieth century. To Stalin’s hubristic query of how many divisions the Pope had, John Paul II gave a decisive answer – more than the Soviet army, because the Church fought with eternal weapons. No one predicted that John Paul II’s papacy would outlast the Soviet Empire and contribute materially to its decline and fall; which shows the dangers of trying to predict history.

Tomorrow two great men will be recognised for their sanctity;ย I am tempted to conclude by quoting Mrs Thatcher: ‘Rejoice, just rejoice!’