From great popes to saints


fullJohn XXIII and John Paul II changed the papacy, the church, and the world. But that’s not the most important thing about them.

An ocean of words has been written on the two men in advance of their being declared saints on Sunday. A common narrative treats them as leaders with very different visions for the church. John XXIII was the brave progressive freeing the church from outdated ideas and rules; John Paul II was the Polish conservative trying to reimpose an older vision of Catholic life.

It’s a congenial story line, but only for people who find facts burdensome. The reality of the two men was more complex.

Born of an Italian peasant family and a veteran of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, John XXIII was 77 when elected—firmly anticommunist and a traditional churchman in many ways. Within a few months, though, he surprised the world by calling the Second Vatican Council.

The need for a council was not a new idea. It had been discussed internally by leading bishops and theologians for some time. But John XXIII had the courage to pursue it. He hoped a new ecumenical council would reinvigorate the methods, forms and structures of the church to address the needs of the modern world.

In effect, John wanted to make the church better at what she was called to do, not to reinvent who she is. When he opened the first session of the council, he told the world’s bishops that his overriding concern was that “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”

As John made clear in his great encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), the church pursues her mission of mercy and salvation for the sake of the world. The church must “hold the world in an embrace of love, that men, in every age, should find in her their own completeness in a higher order of living, and their ultimate salvation.”

John Paul II was elected in 1978, 15 years after John XXIII’s death. He was the youngest pope since Pius IX in 1846 and the first non-Italian in 450 years; a former quarry worker, actor and scholar; a man who had survived the devastation of his homeland and two bloody totalitarian regimes in a row.

Pope John XXIII, who will be canonized on Sunday, was “the best pope in history for the Jewish people,” says one of the founders of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

John XXIII is also credited with saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust and opening the door to Judeo-Christian dialogue, Baruch Tenembaum told AFP in an interview at the Foundation’s New York

The Italian-born John XXIII, whose given name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, “did such extraordinary things. I’m delighted that he is becoming a saint, even if —as a Jew—beatification doesn’t affect me.”

“He couldn’t have done more than he did,” explained Tenembaum, an 80-year-old Argentine known for his efforts to improve inter-faith dialogue. In 2009, his name was placed in the running for the Nobel peace prize.

As the Vatican’s envoy to Turkey from 1935, John XXIII helped save the lives of thousands of Eastern European Jews facing persecution from the Nazis, including by giving Hungarian Jews baptismal certificates.

“At the time, having identity papers labeling you a Catholic was enough to save your life,” Tenembaum said.

Astonishing papacy

John Paul was also a bishop who’d been active at the Second Vatican Council, where he had helped draft some of its key documents. One of these, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, was the text that most vigorously threw open the windows of the church. In his first address after being elected pope, he declared that he believed it his “primary duty” to promote “the most exact fulfillment of the norms and directives of the council.”

And that is what John Paul did for the 26 years of his astonishing papacy, traveling to every corner of the globe and producing a vast body of teaching—on the family, on mercy, on workers’ rights, on faith and reason, on art and culture, on the dignity of women, the elderly and the unborn child, and on too many other issues to name—that dwarfs the work of any previous pope.

But the church doesn’t acknowledge these two great popes as saints because they were innovative CEOs, or because they were somehow free from human flaws or weakness. She declares them saints because in her judgment, these men were genuinely holy. People become saints, not because they’re perfect and not because they do things well, but because they follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in a heroic way.

Those who focus on the politics of the church in the last 50 years and dwell on the perceived differences between John XXIII and John Paul II are missing a much larger point. The two great popes were united in everything that matters. They were different in personality, and different in the urgent problems of their time; but they were one in heart and mind, and in their love for God and his people.

The canonization of the two influential figures will be presided over by Pope Francis and attended by his elderly predecessor Benedict XVI, bringing two living pontiffs together to celebrate two deceased predecessors.

The Pope Emeritus will celebrate mass with Pope Francis, the Vatican said on Saturday.

New halos

In front of the Vatican Saturday, families and groups of scouts armed with folding chairs and sleeping mats braved skies threatening rain to stake out their places in a swelling queue to get onto St. Peter’s Square, which will only open in the early hours of Sunday.

“We’ve come early to get the best places on the square. I don’t think we will be getting much sleep tonight, but we’ll be singing and praying,” French priest Etienne, who had come over from France with 50 pilgrims, said.

Schoolchildren wearing yellow John Paul II backpacks mingled with nuns lugging suitcases off coaches at Rome’s main Termini train station, where Italy’s civil protection agency had set up a huge medical tent.

Priests strumming guitars and singing Hallelujah had taken to the streets of the city’s historic center late Friday, while others holding high crosses led prayers amid curious crowds of ice-cream eating tourists.

Also in Rome for the ceremony were 98 official foreign delegations, including Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Tapestry portraits of the new saints were on show high above the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, while posters in the surrounding streets showed John Paul II and John XXIII already boasting shiny halos, presided over by a benevolently smiling Pope Francis.



Please follow our commenting guidelines.

Comments are closed.