The Christophers joyously celebrate the recent announcement by the Vatican that Pope Francis has cleared the way for the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. During their papacies, these two men provided the faithful and daring leadership necessary to keep the Church on course through tumultuous times. They brought renewal with their outreach to the poor and disenfranchised – an outreach Pope Francis is now emphasizing for his papacy.
It seems fitting that John XXIII will be canonized in this 50th anniversary year of the opening of Vatican II. By calling the Council, he set in motion a three year process that addressed the relation between the Church and the modern world and ushered in greater accessibility within the faith as well as greater ecumenism towards other world religions.
Both men took tremendous strides in bringing the office of the papacy to the people. John XXIII was the first pope in almost 100 years to make pastoral visits around his home diocese of Rome. He visited the sick and infirm in hospitals and even went to a prison at the outset of his pontificate, where he announced to those incarcerated, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.”
While John XXIII made the papacy more accessible to the people of Rome, John Paul II made it accessible to the world. Throughout his time as pope, he visited 129 countries and became one of the most travelled world leaders ever. Some of the largest crowds in human history gathered to hear him speak, and he used the global stage to promote peace and justice for all mankind.
Both men understood that lasting peace could never come about without courageous leaders willing to stand against evil, and they provided such leadership throughout their lives. Before he became pope, John XXIII, then Bishop Angelo Roncalli, assisted Jewish refugees and other endangered groups in their attempts to flee the Nazis. As a young man, John Paul II, then Karol Wojtyla, had to study in a clandestine seminary in Nazi-occupied Poland to even become a priest. Later, he showed great sensitivity to the plight of European Jews by insisting on more than one occasion that orphaned Jewish children, one of whom he personally helped to save, be raised in the faith of their ancestors.
Both men also understood that a desire for peace required tremendous introspection in order to correct personal and institutional faults. Pope John XXIII repented on behalf of Catholics for the sin of anti-Semitism that existed for centuries throughout Europe and elsewhere, and one of his first actions as pope was to remove language from the Good Friday liturgy that was offensive to Jews.
Pope John Paul II reached out to people of all faiths, was the first pope to pray in a mosque, met with the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions and took steps to find common ground with other Christian denominations. And when he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, he placed a letter inside the wall to ask forgiveness for sins against the Jewish people.
Through their humble yet courageous leadership, John XXIII and John Paul II helped to chart a true course for the Church, and we see Pope Francis following in their footsteps in exciting new ways. Let us pray that as recognized saints they continue to guide the Church and intercede for us all in our daily struggle to bring goodness into the world.
Mary Ellen Robinson