Two of the most unforgettable Roman Pontiffs ever were canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday, 27 April, this year: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. At that time each received the incomparable title of “Saint”; hence is proposed by the Church as a worthy intercessor and model before the awesome God who never began to be, the Creator and Sustainer of all life who redeemed us in and through his only-begotten Son.
John XXIII – “Good Pope John” – stands out among the most “fatherly” icons of the Papacy. His words and his overall style won hearts and minds all over the world when he ascended to Peter’s Chair. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was sincerely beloved by most people, everywhere, largely because of his authentic humanity – no pretense, no artificiality, no dispassionate style. His greatest accomplishment as Pope was the convocation of the 21st General Council, surely the most significant religious event of the century. And even though he died long before the Council’s close, his pastoral benevolence seemed to permeate it throughout all sessions. Long after he died in 1963, moreover, his pastoral outlook, based, of course, on solid doctrine, was magnificently expressed in continuity with all previous Church Councils.
Anyone who lived during Vatican Council II (1962-65) can hardly forget how heady the Church was then. The atmosphere was mysteriously charged with a sense of religious experience, comparable to the opening days of spring ushering out a spent winter. Catholics everywhere were reading and talking about the Church, unhesitatingly, enthusiastically and spiritually. Non-Roman Christians were also engaged in God-talk; likewise non-Christians in search of interfaith initiatives. Belief in God and religious practice were omnipresent. Pope John’s iconic image occasioned positive words about the Church; a cover page of Life magazine depicting the Pope signaled the goodness and the hope that the world was seeking. It was as if the media could not broadcast enough about the Papacy, the Church and religion in general. Suddenly, nonbelievers were reading or listening to major Catholic theologians: Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac. In turn, Catholics were poring over solid Protestant scholars: Karl Barth, Oscar Cullman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In retrospect, three powerful forces (“tongues of fire,” really) were set loose by Pope John in the Council: aggiornamento (“updating”), approfondimento (“deepening of understanding”) and ecumenism (the search for Christian unity). All three are still tangible realities, dynamic in themselves and in their own consequences.
“Good Pope John” went home early during the Council, to be with Christ forever; hence was unable to implement these forces in detail. The major work of accomplishing this fell to another Pope; namely, Paul VI.
The second Pope canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday was, obviously, John Paul II, John Paul the Great, doubtless one of the most significant figures of the century (if not the most significant). Much larger than life, it seems, he traveled the universe for Christ and his Church, preaching the Gospel in almost every language in every part of the globe. Never have such crowds assembled to see and hear a pope; in Manila, it is estimated, five to seven million gathered around the altar – the largest congregation ever recorded in human history!
Here was a Pope of towering intellect, profound learning, whose fabled experience in teaching and writing about ethics led not only to epoch-making books (e.g., The Acting Person, Love and Responsibility), but to immortal, classic encyclicals based on faith and reason. Yet his pastoral style reminded us of John XXIII. Wasn’t it columnist George Will who questioned whether “clothes really make the man,” with the line, “not this man.” John Paul is especially recalled as the Pope of Marriage and Family, of Reverence for Human Life, and of the nobility of every person.
The title Magnus (“the Great”) was used in reference to John Paul from his early days as Pope. How privileged we all were to having had him in our midst: a consummate scholar, a brilliant professor, a towering intellect, a pastor par excellence, the finest preacher of our times, an author of note, a successful playwright, a noted poet, a moral theologian, a mystic; a world leader, a survivor of both the Nazi and Communist regimes and a veritable icon of faith and reason.
When John Paul the Great was dying, the entire world kept vigil with prayer. After his death, endless lines passed by his casket. And the exclamation, Santo subito, was displayed and chanted by millions.
The Church and the world have been graced by these two new saints. We should thank the Lord often to have been alive when these two Popes, so extraordinary, talked and walked among us.