SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tomorrow, Pope Francis will canonize two giants of his faith. Pope John Paul II was, of course, a genuinely influential world leader who helped bring an end to communist rule. He was also one of the most well-traveled popes in history, and worked to raise the church's profile in Asia and Africa.

Pope John XXIII was a Vatican diplomat during World War II who saved many Jews from the Holocaust, and then surprised many people by convening what's known as the Second Vatican Council that opened the church's windows onto the modern world. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the report.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The night the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, the Good Pope John - as Italians call him - saw from his window a crowd of torch-bearing faithful in St. Peter's Square. He addressed them not in the arcane style of past popes, but with simple words still fondly remembered today.

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JOHN PAUL II: (Through translator) The whole world is represented here tonight. Look up. Even the moon heard to join us. And when you go home, hug your children, and tell them it's a hug from the pope.

MARCO POLITI: John XXIII produced an earthquake at the end of the '50s. All was so fixed. All was so dogmatic.

POGGIOLI: Marco Politi, Vatican correspondent for the daily Il Fatto, says the Second Vatican Counsel established new guidelines for the Catholic Church in the modern world.

POLITI: It put an end to the century long anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church. Jews are no more the killers of Jesus Christ. They are brethren, after Vatican Council II. Islam is no more a sort of pagan, strange religion. Vatican Council II recognized that Muslims, Jews and Christians are praying to the same God, which was unthinkable in the past century.

POGGIOLI: Vatican II dropped Latin from the Mass, allowing it to be celebrated in all languages. Young Catholics today, says veteran Vatican analyst, Robert Mickens, have no idea what the church was like before the council.

ROBERT MICKENS: Catholics couldn't go into other churches. It was often difficult to even go to a wedding in another church, let alone go into a synagogue or a mosque. That's all changed.

POGGIOLI: John did not see the end of the council, but his deathbed words show he understood what he had put in motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Those who lived as long as I have were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.

POGGIOLI: Fifteen years later, the College of Cardinals elected the first Polish pope, and the youngest one in 125 years. John Paul knew how to command the global stage, and how to use the mass media to spread the gospel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PAUL II: (Through translator) Do not be afraid. Rather, open wide the doors to Christ. Break down the borders of states, of economic and political systems, of vast fields of culture, of civilization and development. Do not be afraid.

POGGIOLI: John Paul was the first pope to visit a synagogue and a mosque and, Marco Politi says, use the papacy as a bully pulpit for human rights.

POLITI: He was the first to call all the leaders of the world religions to pray together for peace in Assisi. And there was a lot of people in the Roman Curia, and in the World Church, who didn't agree to this fact which seemed to put the Catholic faith on the same level of the faith of other people.

POGGIOLI: John Paul had participated in Vatican II as a bishop but by the early 1980s, he felt it had opened the floodgates to too much change. Robert Mickens says one of the key aspects of John Paul's papacy was a crackdown on discussion of certain issues, such as sexual ethics and married priests.

MICKENS: This is because John Paul II's experience in communist Poland was that a divided hierarchy - or a hierarchy that was seen not to be in total, lockstep agreement - was weakened in its proclamation. And so he imposed very strict obedience; the same message, single-minded message for all of the bishops.

POGGIOLI: It was perhaps John Paul's experience with a communist regime that often discredited priests with false accusations that led him to turn a blind eye for so long to the clerical sex abuse scandals that festered under his papacy, and which critics say still tarnish his legacy. Pope Francis' decision to canonize the pope beloved of traditionalists together with the icon of Catholic liberals - including waiving the second miracle requirement for John XXIII - is seen as part of his effort to keep all Catholics united inside one, big tent.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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