In just a few days – April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday – Pope Francis will canonize two of the greatest religious leaders in many decades: Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope John Paul II. It’s a good moment to pause and reflect on each.
Elected in October 1958 at the age of 77, Pope John XXIII (born Angelo Roncalli) was very unlike his predecessor, Pius XII. John XXIII came from Italian peasant stock, and in the place of papal formality, he radiated humor and warmth. It was John XXIII who, when once asked by an interviewer how many people worked at the Vatican, quipped “about half.”
Of course, he could also command, as he did in April 1959 when he forbade Catholics to vote for parties supporting communism. He was also honored as “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial for victims of the Holocaust – for his help in saving Jews as a papal nuncio during World War II. And he was nobody’s fool, as his own Curia soon learned.
Many people assumed that John XXIII would serve as a caretaker on the road to a younger pope. But less than three months after his election, in January 1959, he called for a new ecumenical council, the first in nearly a century. He lived to open Vatican II in 1962. He did not live to close it, dying in 1963 just two months after releasing his encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”). But in the brief five years he served as bishop of Rome, John XXIII worked a revolution, returning the papal ministry from medieval princeling to good shepherd; from castle lord to the real meaning of pontifex — i.e.,“bridge builder.”
We can’t understand the Second Vatican Council without grasping the spirit of the pope who called it. John XXIII was a man of unusual pastoral skill. He was alert to the concerns of others. He had a strong sense of social justice. He saw the evil of the arms race. He respected the achievements of the modern world. As a former Vatican diplomat, he was also a globalist. He understood the suffering of people in the developing countries; the priority of the poor; and the mission of the Catholic faith to all persons, in all cultures, in all ages.
And yet he sifted all these concerns through a heart shaped by his episcopal motto: “obedience and peace.” John XXIII never saw the Church as a problem that needed fixing or a corporation at civil war with its soul.
The Catholic Church was one reality, an intimately personal unity summed up in his great encyclical Mater et Magistra, issued a year before the council: “Mother and Teacher of all nations — such is the Catholic Church in the mind of her Founder, Jesus Christ; to 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. She is ‘the pillar and ground of the truth.’”
Charles de Foucald once wrote that obedience is the yardstick of love. For Pope John XXIII, any love of the Church that claimed to express itself as disobedience to her teaching would have been impossible to imagine.
And what of Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyla) – already known to millions as “the Great”?
Pope John Paul died nine years ago in Easter Week, during the season at the heart of our faith. He saw in a uniquely powerful way that the secret to Christian love is the experience of divine mercy received through the cross.
Mercy is love that goes beyond fairness. Fairness alone can’t save anyone. If God’s justice were like human justice, we’d all be condemned, because we’re all sinners. We’re caught in a web of sins against one another, and we can never make that right by demanding what we claim is “fair,” because someone else can rightly place on us the same judgment we place on others.
Mercy was a guiding principle of John Paul’s pontificate. In fact, Divine Mercy Sunday exists on the universal Church calendar because John Paul II placed it there. Mercy is the heart of his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), which stresses our need to forgive and to seek forgiveness. Real justice, God’s justice, flows from mercy. Mercy is an expression of God’s fatherhood, his greatness, which has the power of forgiving us freely and is beyond natural understanding. Only when we forgive and show mercy to others can we rely on the same mercy for ourselves.
After his death, some 600,000 people filed past John Paul II’s bier on the first day of official mourning. More than 1.4 million saw the body before he was buried. Nearly 3 million persons traveled to Rome for the funeral. Why did he draw such emotion? Obviously, he was deeply loved and respected, and not just by Catholics.
But he also embodied certain qualities that all of us instinctively hunger to believe in: that one life can make a difference; that beauty and good are more powerful than evil and death; that there’s a purpose to our lives beyond ourselves; and that because we’re all created by the same God, what we share in common is more important than what divides us.
Karol Wojtyla survived two murderous ideologies – Nazism and Communism; but he was equally critical of Western greed, selfishness and disregard for the poor and the unborn. He was a quarry worker, actor, poet, athlete, playwright, priest, and philosopher. He did all these things well. He proved by his life the words of St. Irenaeus: that “the glory of God is man fully alive.”
In an age of determinism — filled with one soulless explanation of the human person after another; economic, historical, scientific — there was no trace of fatalism in the man. For Karol Wojtyla, nothing was predetermined except God’s sovereignty and final victory. The rest is up to us. We have the freedom to help God shape the world. And that freedom both reflects and reinforces the dignity of the human person.
Be not afraid. Those words of John Paul II ring as true today in his silence as they did from his lips on the night of his election. Karol Wojtyla embodied hope in an age with so little of it, and because of him, the world is different. And so are we.
May God grant us the ability to learn from the witness of these two great saints – Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II – and carry their discipleship forward with the example of our own lives.