VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday cleared two of the 20th century's most influential popes to become saints, approving a miracle needed to canonize Pope John Paul II and waiving Vatican rules to honor Pope John XXIII.
It was a remarkable show of papal authority and confirmed Francis' willingness to bend church tradition when it comes to things he cares deeply about. Both popes are also closely identified with the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into modern times, an indication that Francis clearly wants to make a statement about the council's role in shaping the church today.
Francis approved a decree that a Costa Rican woman's inexplicable cure from a deadly brain aneurism was the "miracle" needed to canonize John Paul. More significantly, he decided that John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, could be declared a saint even without a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The Vatican said Francis had the power to dispense with such requirements and could proceed with only one confirmed miracle to John's name.
The ceremony is expected before the end of the year. The date of Dec. 8 has been floated as likely, given it's the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major feast day that honors Mary, to whom both saintly popes were particularly devoted. Polish prelates continue to press for October, to mark the 35th anniversary of the Polish-born John Paul's election, but Vatican officials have suggested that's too soon to organize such a massive event.
The announcement came on a remarkable day melding papacies past and present: It opened with Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attending their first Vatican ceremony together, sitting side-by-side on matching papal chairs for the unveiling of a statue in the Vatican gardens. It continued with the publication of Francis' first encyclical, a meditation on faith that was largely written by Benedict before he retired but was signed by Francis. And it climaxed with Francis' decision to canonize two other predecessors.
Each event, historic on its own, would have captured headlines. But the canonization announcement capped them all.
On the anniversary of John Paul's death this year, Francis prayed at the tombs of both him and John XXIII — an indication that he sees a great personal and spiritual continuity in them.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that the miracle that brought John Paul to the ranks of saints concerned a Costa Rican woman, Floribeth Mora, who on Friday broke months of silence to tell her story in public, surrounded by her family, doctors and church officials in the archbishop's residence in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A tearful Mora described how she awoke at her home in Dulce Nombre de Tres Rios on April 8, 2011, with a debilitating headache that sent her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with a cerebral aneurism in the right side of her brain.
Doctors decided they couldn't operate because the area was inaccessible.
"With an open operation or an endovascular intervention, the risk to Floribeth would have been to die or be left with a significant neurological deficit," her doctor, Dr. Alejandro Vargas, told reporters.
She was sent home with painkillers.
"I returned home with the fear that I was going to die," Mora said.
Nevertheless, a few days later, she insisted on participating in a religious procession during which she said she received a sign that she would be healed. The family built a shrine to John Paul outside their home: a colorful altar with a photo of the late pope next to a statue of the Madonna and surrounded by flowers, candles and Christmas lights.
On the day John Paul was beatified, May 1, 2011, Mora said she insisted on watching the Mass, which drew some 1.5 million people to St. Peter's Square and the streets around it.
"I contemplated the photo of the Holy Father with his arms extended and I fixed my eyes on him," she said. "In this moment, I heard a voice tell me, 'Get up, don't be afraid,' and I could only say `Yes, I'm going to get up."'
She said her family was shocked to see her get out of bed. "I was afraid to tell my husband, because he was going to think I was crazy or on drugs. But I got up from bed, and I am here before you, healthy," she said.
Medical tests confirmed that the aneurism had disappeared, Vargas said. "It's the first time I've seen anything like it," he said, showing the before and after images of the hemorrhage.