April 27, 2014 saw an event unprecedented in history. In St. Peter’s Square, Rome, 2 Popes were canonized at the same ceremony, with two living Popes in attendance. The new Pope Saints are St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, while the Popes in attendance were Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The event drew millions of pilgrims to the familiar confines of the Square. Canonizations are the result of a fact-finding process, and not a random declaration of holiness, as some might think. Canonization is a recognition of signs that demonstrate a person’s sanctity, such as proof of a holy life, and miracles attributed to the person’s intercession. The canonization process, concluded with Pope Francis’ declaration of April 27, is a standard way of investigating a deceased person’s sanctity. We are blessed to be able to declare both these wonderful Popes as Saints!
John XXIII’s baptismal name was Angelo Roncalli. He was born in Lombardy, Italy, in 1881. He did not come from an aristocratic family. It was a rather simple upbringing for Angelo. He had a very large family. He was ordained a priest at a fairly young age, and served in various capacities. He was the Papal Nuncio to France, and was at one point the Patriarch of Venice, Italy. When Roncalli was made Pope, it was a rather shocking occurrence. He was a pretty big departure in style from his predecessor, the stately Pope Pius XII. Pope John was much more familiar with the people. Another difference was that Pope John was 77 years old at the time of his election. Most people felt that, after Pius XII’s long pontificate, John would be a “caretaker” Pope.
John shocked the world with the desire to call an Ecumenical Council (a meeting of the world’s bishops) in Rome. Being held in Rome, it was called the Second Vatican Council (the first being in the 1870’s). While Vatican Council I dealt primarily with the definition of Papal Infallibility, Vatican II had the agenda of teaching Catholicism to modern minds. In his opening speech to the Vatican Council, Pope John stated:
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that he sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.
Pope John wished to offer the riches of the Catholic faith to the world in a way that was accessible. John realized that there was a falling away from faith taking place in the secular world. John wished to reach out to that world, stating, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.” After the events of the Reformation in the 16th century, Christianity’s unity was in question. The Council of Trent met the challenge of differentiating truth from error. But in the 20th century, in the aftermath of two World Wars, the Church’s task was to proclaim the truth of the Gospel in a straightforward way. Instead of resolving intermural disputes, the Church had to address the world that surrounded it. It was time for a “New Pentecost”. As before, Peter had to speak to the crowd, and tell them Christ’s Gospel message.
Pope John XXIII died in 1963, only part way through the Second Vatican Council proceedings. It would be interesting to see what the Council would have been like if its protagonist would have lived to see it through. Pope John set in motion a series of events in the life of Catholicism that would bring forth tremendous changes. Not all Catholics would agree with or appreciate these changes. It must be said that Pope John only set the process in motion. He does not deserve all the credit or blame for everything that happened in your parish in the 60’s and 70’s. Pope John did not create the events of the 1960’s. If Pope John was a “revolutionary” it was the revolution of the Crucified Messiah, Jesus Christ.
John was an apostle – a man of God. After a time when people were distancing themselves from the Church, John wanted to get back to the basics. He wanted a Church that resembled the early Church, for the Church in the Modern world faces challenging conditions similar to those found by the first Christians. Into a complicated and tired, war-torn world, John wanted to re-introduce us to Jesus Christ. He wanted to remove any blocks the Church had erected to showing Jesus to the world. For that, and many other reasons, we call him a saint. The revolution that St. John XXIII called for was the same as that of Jesus. Everything else needed to be placed to the side, until the world understood Jesus.
Is this not still the challenge of our day? Has not our new Pope Francis renewed this call?
May we discern the signs of the times – and listen for the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Each of us has a calling from God to serve Him, and reach out to our brothers and sisters. If we persevere as Pope John did, we can become saints! May we remember this man of tremendous courage and wisdom. May we ask his intercession as we follow God’s call.
Next week: St. John Paul II!