Every spring in Rome, the big production is normally the Easter Mass celebrated by the pope. This year Easter remains the spiritual linchpin, but in popular terms it’s more like a warm-up act for next Sunday’s double-play canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

This will be the first time two popes have been declared saints in the same ceremony, and although projections vary, well over a million people could turn out in Rome to watch history being made, with millions more following the event on TV or over the Internet.

Here are five things to know about the biggest Vatican happening of early 2014.

First, putting these two popes together amounts to a call for unity between the church’s liberal and conservative wings.

In the Catholic street, John XXIII is an icon of the left, remembered as the pope who launched the reforming Second Vatican Council and opened the Church to the modern world. John Paul II is a hero to the right, the pope who brought down Communism, who fought what he called a “culture of death” behind liberalizing currents on abortion and other life issues, and who insisted on strong Catholic identity vis-à-vis secular pressures to water down the faith.

Inevitably, those stereotypes don’t do justice to complex figures. John XXIII was actually a man of deeply traditional Italian Catholic piety, and John Paul II was hardly a neo-con. Recall, for instance, his opposition to both the death penalty and the US-led war in Iraq in 2003.

Nonetheless, the politically savvy Francis is aware of how these popes are seen, so the dual halos represent an invitation to left and right to come together. Had either pontiff been canonized individually, it might have come off as a victory lap for one side or the other.

Second, the combination also says something about the multiple paths to holiness.

Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla, the given names of John XXIII and John Paul II, were remarkably different personalities. Roncalli was the roly-poly, avuncular son of Italian peasants, while the swashbuckling Wojtyla was sort of a Polish John Wayne. Roncalli was a student of church history and a Vatican diplomat, while Wojtyla was a philosopher and pastor. As noted, they also have different followings.

Combining them is thus a reminder that good Catholics, up to and including popes, come in all shapes and sizes. As Jesuit Fr. James Martin puts it, the canonizations illustrate that “sanctity does not mean we have to be cookie-cutter versions of one or another saint.”

Third, the canonizations offer a reminder that sainthood, when it’s working properly, is the most democratic procedure in the Catholic church.

In theory, the sainthood process is supposed to begin with grass-roots devotion to a particular figure. In some cases that rank-and-file sentiment can be hard to discern, but not this time.

John XXIII was a global icon in his day, and he remains a beloved figure especially among Italians. A sociologist might well conclude that the Holy Trinity in Italy isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but rather God, Padre Pio, and John XXIII, because a stunning share of taxis, bars and restaurants, and private homes are festooned with images of the famed Capuchin stigmatic and Il papa buono, “Good Pope John.”

For John Paul II, the vast crowds chanting “Santo subito!”, meaning “sainthood now,” during his funeral Mass nine years ago speak for themselves. If that’s not enough, consider that one of Rome’s most prestigious theaters is currently staging a musical called “Karol Wojtyla: The True Story,” with scores of ordinary people forking over $40 a ticket to see the show.

Fourth, there are novel twists to both canonizations.

For John XXIII, it’s that Pope Francis has dispensed with the normally required second miracle. With John Paul II it’s the new land speed record he’s setting, only nine years from death to sainthood, while other candidates can languish for centuries.

Purists may grouse over those departures from tradition, but they illustrate a core truth about Catholicism: It’s good to be pope, because Francis was free to go ahead anyway.

Fifth and finally, neither new saint is without his critics.

Some traditionalists fault John XXIII for weakening the Church, noting that the progressive changes introduced by Vatican II coincided with dramatic declines in the numbers of priests and nuns and the practice of the faith in the West.

Liberals sometimes complain that John Paul II “rolled back the clock” on Vatican II’s reforming spirit. Advocates for victims of clerical sex abuse often charge that John Paul II allowed the scandals to fester, in some cases supporting clerics who turned out to be guilty and failing to discipline leaders who covered it up.

Without assessing those objections, it’s worth noting that whenever a pope is beatified or canonized, Vatican officials insist it’s not tantamount to a declaration that every policy choice during their papacy was beyond reproach. It’s rather a statement that despite their human failures, they strove to live a holy life worthy of imitation.

Pundits and activists may chew over that all they like, but the throngs who’ll be in the streets of Rome next Sunday probably won’t display much doubt that John XXIII and John Paul II both fit the bill.

Should popes even be canonized

As a footnote, some experts question the whole business of assigning halos to popes. Generally it’s not because they doubt the personal holiness of these men, but because they worry it damages the process.

First of all, Catholic theology holds that the Church never “makes” a saint. If someone is already in Heaven with God, which is what calling them a saint means, they don’t need a piece of paper from Rome certifying their status. Declaring someone a saint is really for everyone else, intended to lift that person up as a role model and a source of inspiration.

With popes, such a gesture is arguably superfluous, since their election already made them highly visible figures.

Further, the question with popes is, which ones do you canonize? Either you do it for all of them, which may cheapen the result by making it seem almost part of the standard benefits package, or you pick and choose, which risks making the process seem political.

For those reasons, some theologians have quietly suggested a moratorium on declaring popes as saints. Whatever the merits of that case, so far it doesn’t look like Francis is buying it.

Vatican vs. UN, round two

In early February, the Vatican was blindsided when the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published a scathing report on its handling of the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals. The committee also waded into the culture wars by calling on the Vatican to modify Catholic teaching on matters such as abortion, homosexuality, and contraception.

Round two is coming up in early May when the UN Committee against Torture meets in Geneva, and this time signs are that while the Vatican may exercise its typical diplomatic caution, others in the Catholic world intend to push back.

The committee reviews implementation of the 1984 Convention against Torture. On May 5 and 6 it will hold a regularly scheduled hearing to examine reports from a number of states, including Lithuania, Montenegro, Sierra Leone, and Thailand. The Vatican (technically, the Holy See), which ratified the convention in 2002, is also on the agenda.

It seems a foregone conclusion that when it’s the Vatican’s turn in the dock, the committee will focus on the Church’s sexual abuse scandals.

A “shadow report,” akin to friend of the court brief in legal proceedings, has been filed with the committee by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal foundation in New York that’s led a charge to indict the Vatican before international tribunals, on behalf of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest victims advocacy group in the United States. The Child Rights International Network also filed a brief arguing that since rape is defined as a form of torture under international law, the abuse crisis falls under the committee’s purview.

The culture wars may also come up, since the Center for Reproductive Rights has filed a shadow report arguing that the Vatican’s opposition to abortion and contraception violates the terms of the Convention against Torture.

These groups are expected to make presentations before the committee during a period set aside to hear from NGOs on May 2. The difference this time around is that the panel of 10 UN experts will also hear from organizations representing the other side.

Both Catholic Voices, a group born in the United Kingdom that defends the Church in the media and other public venues, and the Atlanta-based Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, which criticizes what it regards as nontransparent UN procedures that cloak a “radical agenda,” have filed their own shadow reports and plan to take part in the May 2 panel.

The Catholic Voices brief objects to what it calls an “insatiable new intolerance” for the Church despite its good works: “Never mind some 120,000 healthcare institutions run by that same Church, or its 230,000 schools worldwide. Never mind the soup kitchens and nurseries and other charitable enterprises far too numerous to name, or the Christian hands throughout history that have soothed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the poor, and otherwise lived up to the very creed that is now, in some quarters, an object of derision.”

The Solidarity Center argues that the committee should not weaken a consensus against torture by “superimposing” a liberal agenda on sexual morality, and warns that doing so would be a violation of religious freedom. The brief also suggests that the chairman of the Committee against Torture, American legal scholar Claudio Grossman, ought to recuse himself because of his history of support for liberal positions on reproductive rights and gay marriage.

A total of 53 pro-life and pro-family organizations from Europe, South America, and North America signed on to the Solidarity Center’s text.

One element of the strategy appears to be to make the United Nations, rather than the Vatican, the story. If the committee takes a swipe at Catholic teaching, these activists want the reaction to be, “Who are a bunch of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Geneva to be telling a Church what it can and can’t believe?”

Vatican officials will also testify before the committee, and presumably will try again, as they did with the Committee on the Rights of the Child in January, to persuade the members that the Church has turned over a new leaf and is now committed to the fight against sexual abuse.

In one sense there’s not a great deal at stake in this show-down, given that a UN panel doesn’t have any police power. At most, it may be able to shame wayward states into seeing things its way.

On the other hand, civil lawyers in the United States involved in sex abuse litigation have long seen international law as a possible way to overcome the Vatican’s sovereign immunity in American courts, so there could be real-world fallout if the committee finds the Vatican in violation of a UN convention. That’s especially so this time, since the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child but has done so with the Convention against Torture.

It remains to be seen how much impact shadow reports from Vatican-friendly outfits may have, given that in the United Nations, as in bureaucracies everywhere, hearings are sometimes formalities with conclusions cooked up well in advance.

At a minimum, the mobilization may nudge the committee to vet both the tone and the substance of its report carefully, because it’s clear that people of all persuasions will be paying close attention.

The ‘Pope of the Elderly’

As is his custom, Pope Francis exited the Vatican on Holy Thursday to reach out to a particular group of people. Last year it was youth in a detention center, while this time it was elderly and disabled persons living in the St. Mary of Providence Center in Rome’s Casal del Marmo neighborhood.

A year ago his choice to wash the feet of 12 young inmates, including two women and two Muslims, caused a sensation, and much the same thing happened this time around. He washed the feet of 12 people, all laity, including a 39-year-old woman diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

It’s a gesture that delights the world but drives sticklers for the rules to distraction, since Church law says that if a cleric administers the foot-washing ritual it’s supposed to be restricted to men. Critics often see that as a petty patriarchal anachronism, though there is logic to it. Holy Thursday commemorates, among other things, the institution of the priesthood by Christ, and because the priesthood is restricted to men one can make an argument for doing the same thing with the foot-washing ceremony.

In any event, the contretemps over whose feet the pope washes risks missing the real point Francis wanted to make, to wit, the importance of embracing the elderly.

For some time, it’s been clear that Francis aspires to be the “Pope of the Elderly,” in a similar sense to the way John Paul II had a special affection for the young.

Part of the reason may be biographical. Francis’ own paternal grandmother, Rosa, played an important role in raising the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and left a deep impression. In one of his early talks as pope, Francis quoted his grandmother on the fleeting nature of earthy wealth: “A burial gown doesn’t have pockets.”

His desire to reach out to the elderly has been clear at several key moments.

When he traveled to Brazil for World Youth Day in July, Francis said his vision for the event is that the young pilgrims would have a special concern for the elderly, and that part of the mission for World Youth Day should be to bring people “at either end of life” together.

When he invokes his image of a “throwaway culture,” meaning a mentality that sees whole categories of people as disposable, Francis routinely mentions the elderly as among the primary victims. In early February, Francis held a special Vatican audience with grandparents, saying “they need to feel themselves valued” in the “great responsibility” they have.

Aside from personal motives, the “option for the old” also has a clear pastoral logic. That’s because the dominant demographic story of our time is what experts call “The Gray Boom.”

Here are the numbers: According to the Census Bureau, in 2005, there were 60 million Americans under 14, with 34.7 million over 65. By 2050, the number under 14 will stay basically the same, but the 65+ group will have skyrocketed to 75.9 million, an increase of 119 percent. In Europe, the median age by 2050 will be 47.1, and in Japan a staggering 52.3.

The same thing is happening outside the West. In the first half of the 21st century, Algeria will go from a median age of 21.7 to 40, an astonishing jump of almost 18 years. In China, 26 percent of the population will be 60 or older by 2040. Brazil is aging at a rate 2.1 times that of the United States, and by 2050, 63 million Brazilians will be over 60.

Bottom line: The world is getting much older, much faster, than ever before. In that sense, the “Pope of the Elderly” couldn’t have come along at a better time.

Is Hell empty?

It’s customary that the homily for the Vatican’s Good Friday service is delivered by the Preacher of the Papal Household, who is by Church law the only person allowed to preach to the pope. Since 1753 the role has been restricted to a member of the Capuchin Franciscan religious order, and it’s been held since 1980 by Italian Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. (His last name, by the way, means “sing the Mass.”)

Cantalamessa is involved in the Catholic charismatic movement and is a member of the Catholic delegation for dialogue with Pentecostals. In past years he’s used his platform to make some bold statements, including a 2006 recommendation to Pope Benedict XVI that he declare a day of prayer and fasting to express repentance for sexual abuse committed by clergy and solidarity with victims.

Given that history, ears tend to perk up when Cantalamessa speaks.

This time around, the Capuchin didn’t directly address any hot-button issues in the Church, though he did say that Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is repeated whenever “a minister of God is unfaithful to his state in life.”

Instead the homily was a reflection on Judas Iscariot, arguing that his betrayal of Christ for 30 pieces of silver is emblematic of the corrupting effect of money. In that context, Cantalamessa denounced the drug trade, the mafia, political corruption, the manufacture and sale of arms, and even the sale of human organs taken from children as examples of sin motivated by greed.

From a doctrinal point of view, Cantalamessa’s most interesting comment came in a brief meditation on Judas’s eternal destiny. He said it’s legitimate to hope that in his final moments Judas repented and was saved. More broadly, Cantalamessa hinted that it’s legitimate to have the same hope for everybody, meaning to hope that while Hell is real, it’s also basically empty.

“The Church assures us that a man or a woman proclaimed a saint is experiencing eternal blessedness,” Cantalamessa said. “But it does not itself know for certain that any particular person is in Hell.”

The comment is noteworthy given that the idea of an “empty Hell” has been a matter of controversy in Catholic theological circles.

In general, conservative theologians insist that although the Church has never pronounced definitively that any specific person is damned, both the Bible and the Fathers of the Church took it for granted that there are plenty of unrepentant sinners in Hell.

For instance, Cardinal Avery Dulles argued in a 2008 essay shortly before his death that the language of Scripture about Judas “could hardly be true” if he were really among the saved, and asserted that belief in an empty Hell reflects a “thoughtless optimism” characteristic of the modern age.

“Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved,” Dulles wrote. “More education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in Hell.”

To be sure, a homily by the Preacher of the Papal Household hardly qualifies as a dogmatic declaration, and in any event Cantalamessa’s brief reference wasn’t intended as a careful theological assertion.

At a minimum, however, the fact that he said it out loud, and that the Vatican newspaper published it, indicates that hope for an empty Hell is not viewed as utterly out of bounds in Rome.