Friday, April 26, 2024

Reflecting back on the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II


The images of John Paul II and John XXIII hanging from the facade of St Peter's during the canonization Mass in 2014The images of John Paul II and John XXIII hanging from the facade of St Peter's during the canonization Mass in 2014 

John XXIII and John Paul II: Pastors in the midst of the people

Ten years ago, Pope Francis canonized Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II during Mass in St Peter’s Square. Living in times of great historical upheaval, the beloved pontiffs bore witness to the hope and joy that comes from an encounter with Jesus.

By Alessandro Gisotti

Who are the saints? First of all, they are not “supermen”, as Francis has so often reminded us. Yet in the collective imagination, even of non-believers, holiness is synonymous with exceptionality. If your name is on the calendar – one could say facetiously – it is certainly due to a life lived in an extraordinary way.

Pope Francis, however, speaking precisely on this point, has emphasized – in an Apostolic Exhortation that would perhaps repay further and deeper study – that all the baptised are called to holiness, to be “saints next door”, who are far more numerous than those included on the Church’s calendar. Holiness, the Pontiff wrote in Gaudete et exsultate, is seen “in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile”.

John XXIII and John Paul II believed wholeheartedly in this holiness of the People of God, a patient people who know how to entrust themselves to the Father and let themselves be guided by Him, and on 27 April ten years ago they were proclaimed saints in a St Peter’s Square packed with the faithful.

Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyła – in Venice and Krakow respectively, and later during their Petrine ministry in Rome – were “shepherds with the smell of sheep”, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio would say today. They lived as shepherds in the midst of the people without fear of touching the wounds of Christ, wounds visible in the sufferings of sisters and brothers who make up that Body that is the Church. The Second Vatican Council – born from the docile and courageous heart of John XXIII and which had in the young bishop Karol Wojtyla one of its most passionate supporters – has put the image of the Body of Christ back at the centre of ecclesial life, linking it to the springtime experience of the first Christian community related in the Acts of the Apostles.

We are living in a time of great upheaval: in recent years, first the pandemic, then the war in Ukraine, and now the new conflict in the Middle East have come together, sowing pain, fear, and a sense of turmoil that, thanks to globalisation, now seems to be a constitutive dimension of humanity as a whole. Yet the times in which Roncalli and Wojtyła lived were no less complex, no less marked by fear of the annihilation of the human race. John XXIII, elderly and ill, was faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the opening days of the Council. John Paul II, who as a priest had experienced the Nazi horror in his native Poland and as a bishop the suffocating Communist dictatorship, as Pope faced, with prophetic tenacity, the confrontation between the two blocs of the Cold War leading up to the dramatic dissolution of the Soviet Union and the consequent illusion of the “end of history”.

These two 20th-century popes did not respond to the tragedies of their time with resignation and pessimism. They did not join the litany of the “prophets of doom” who then, as now, seemed to prefer to complain about what is wrong rather than roll up their sleeves to help make things better. As Pope Francis emphasised in the homily of the Mass for their canonisation, in John XXIII and John Paul II “faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history”, a faith that manifested itself in the joy and hope that only those who have encountered Christ in their lives can testify.

“Such were the hope and the joy which these two holy popes had received as a gift from the risen Lord,” Pope Francis noted in his homily, “and which they in turn bestowed in abundance upon the People of God, meriting our eternal gratitude”. That gratitude to the two saints does not fade with the passing of the years, but rather grows in the conviction that now from Heaven they can intercede for the Church, for the People of God, whom in their earthly lives they served with love and self-denial.

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