There is a passage in St. Paul that reads: “Even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” (2 Cor 5:16) What Paul is saying is that once Christ rose from the dead at Easter, he became a new creation. Jesus burst the bonds of time and space, and so we now know him in a new way.
This is true of anyone who enters into eternity from this life. Those who have died remain the people they were, but utterly transformed in a new dimension of being that it is impossible for us to comprehend. Like Christ, and in Christ, those who have died and gone to heaven have also become a new creation. They are present to us not as they were before, but glorified and immortal, outside of space and time.
The church has determined that two great popes of recent memory are worthy of veneration as certainly being in heaven: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. By canonizing them, the church is saying that we can confidently ask their intercession and honor them at the altar, and that we can look to their example, teaching and counsel with complete confidence as models of heroic virtue and sound doctrine.
For me, Pope John XXIII remains more of a historical figure because he died when I was just a boy. Anything I might say about him would be in terms of historical events. Pope John Paul, on the other hand, is someone who played a very direct role in my life, and for that reason I can share with you a much more intimate tribute.
I interacted with the late great pope personally. During my years in Rome, I spoke with him. I even ate at table with him. I witnessed firsthand his ministry in this world and was privileged to assist him in some small way. Because of modern communications, most of you also saw and heard him, and were drawn up into his interaction with people and the effect he had on the church and the world.
We recall Saint John Paul’s message on the very first day of his pontificate in 1978: “So often today, man does not know that which is in him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair.... Do not be afraid. Open, I say, open wide the doors for Christ. Christ knows ‘that which is in man.’ He alone knows it.”
In hindsight, we can say that Pope St. John Paul the Great lived that message, faithful to the end, and has inspired the whole church to do the same. Countless individuals, especially young people, were drawn to him even in his old age. As Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, evil may be seductive and glamorous, but people are even more fascinated by genuine purity and truth.
In Pope John Paul they instinctively recognized a man of God striving for holiness, passionate for the truth, and concerned for everyone. He was, as Isaiah says of a man of God, both a messenger of the good news of salvation and its watchman. He was also a man in love with Christ, for only a confession of love by St. Peter and his successors can save them from their human weaknesses and failings.
With cherished personal memories of one whom I consider a spiritual father, with gratitude to God for raising up this great pope and with joy at his canonization, I know that when I worship and pray, I interact with him in a new way, every bit as real, even more real, than was possible during his life on earth. In the moving words of Pope Benedict at Pope John Paul’s funeral: “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” And the same can be said of Saint John XXIII as well.
We ask both of our newly canonized popes to intercede in particular for a new springtime of evangelization in our Archdiocese of Hartford. Through their prayers, may we be blessed with renewed Catholic faith, especially among those who are non-practicing or alienated from the church. We also ask them to intercede for our country, that instead of turning further and further away from God and the law he has written in the human heart, we may set out again on the right path of justice and truth.