Two popes, two saints

By 
  • April 25, 2014

Saints are not saints because they fit some precast mould of perfection. The Church has proclaimed at least 20,000 saints over its two millennia and no two of them are the same.

Even within the list of saints we call Canadian, the poor farm boy St. Br. Andre who struggled to learn to read as an adult has not much in common with the nobleman, scholar and masterful politician St. François de Laval. St. Marie de l’Incarnation — the French-born entrepreneur who founded schools and pioneered the whole idea of religious women on the front lines of the fight for a better world — lived a vastly different life from St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who almost reinvented contemplative life from within her Mohawk culture.

The two popes being proclaimed saints together on April 27 might seem to be sharing a single halo. But they were individuals. Even though both left a profound mark on the Church — one pope called the Second Vatican Council and the other was its great interpreter — they are as different from one another as they were independent of conventional wisdom and defiant to the dead hand of political caution. For too long these two popes have been reduced to mere banners for the competing camps within Catholicism. The good Pope John XXIII is hero to liberals of a certain age who lionize him as the pope who made the rigid, fearful, self-obsessed and defensive Church of old disappear. Pope John Paul II has been reduced to champion of the conservatives, the man who cracked down on liturgical abuses, muzzled speculative theology and curtailed attempts to impose progressive politics on the Church.

“I was delighted when I heard they would be canonized together,” said theologian to the Diocese of Regina Brett Salkeld. “I have this secret dream that they will enter the litany together. I don’t know how likely that is.”

It was Pope Francis who decided to yoke the two popes together with a single canonization. He will proclaim them saints in a single ceremony in St. Peter’s Square that will be attended by as many pilgrims as can cram into the square, plus tens of thousands more watching on monitors around Rome, and millions more TV viewers worldwide.

“This looks to me, if I had to guess, like Pope Francis telling the Church that you can’t play popes off against one another,” Salkeld said. “You can’t pretend that Pope John XXIII speaks for your Church and Pope John Paul II doesn’t… I love them being put together as a symbolic act that says, ‘You can’t pick and choose your popes like this, you can’t pigeonhole your popes, you can’t politicize your popes.”

The liberal and conservative partisans of Catholicism have pigeonholed their Popes, as if they operated a tree-fort clubhouse whose purpose was to decide for whom they should lower the rope ladder. But neither pope was interested in the Church as selfperpetuating machinery sealed off from the world around it. Both popes saw a world that needed saving. Barriers between the Church and the world were, for both men, a falsification of Christ’s mission and a lie about the Church.

The idea that Pope John XXIII ever regarded the Church as the bad old Church which somehow needed to disappear does not square well with his peasant origins. Angelo Roncalli was born into poverty in the northern Italy village of Sotto il Monte in 1881. He had three sisters, so his sharecropping parents were glad there would be a boy to help with the farm work. It was a life of work, family and the hope of heaven.

The boy had a brain not easily wasted on peasant labour. At 12 he placed third in a high school entrance exam. That took him away to the town of Bergamo and a school that had been founded by St. Charles Borromeo, the great 16th-century interpreter of the Council of Trent. (Roncalli would publish a five-volume critical biography of Borromeo.)

It wasn’t an easy transition from peasant life to the city. Some members of his family thought it was irresponsible to abandon his hard-working family to indulge in studies. Home one summer and catching up on his reading, the teenaged Roncalli’s mother accused him of cold detachment from her. The accusation hurt deeply.

Roncalli’s extraordinary intelligence and discipline resulted in a doctorate in theology in 1904, the year he was ordained a priest at 23. The bright young man was almost immediately tapped by his bishop in Bergamo to be his secretary. He also lectured at the Bergamo seminary.

Come the First World War, Roncalli joined the army, carried stretchers, applied bandages, said Mass and heard confessions for soldiers caught in the most mechanized, industrialized and widespread war Europe had yet to see. Throughout this time, the Church in Italy was afraid of losing the working class — the new class of urban poor who became dislodged from lives of faith when they left their villages. Roncalli lectured future priests on “the social question.” In 1921 he was brought to Rome to oversea evangelization in Italy, a job that directly concerned itself with growing atheism and indifference among industrial workers.

The young Roncalli saw how the Church is called to minister to people in the world, how it must be alive to their realities and struggles. That insight made him the right sort of priest for the Vatican’s diplomatic service. In 1925 the 44- year-old Roncalli was ordained a bishop and sent to Bulgaria — a country with a majority Orthodox population deeply suspicious of everything Catholic.

Nine years later, he was sent to Turkey during the aggressively secularist rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Under Turkish law, he could not appear in public in religious garb. All outward displays of religion were banned and Roncalli wore a European business suit and a hat. To maintain the secular character of Turkey, Ataturk outlawed the Turkish fez and commanded all Turks must wear a European-style hat.

In Turkey, Roncalli saw war unfurl itself again over Europe. In early 1944 Jewish-American leader Ira Hirschmann spoke to him about how some Hungarian religious sisters had helped Jews avoid Nazi roundups. Roncalli told Hirschmann he would provide as many baptismal certificates as needed to save the lives of Jews. Thousands of Jews slipped through the Nazi net thanks to “Operation Baptism.”

When France was liberated later that year, Roncalli was thrown into that fire. He became nuncio to a divided and wounded country.

“The country was in high revolt over the sorry responses (and also outright collaboration) of the episcopacy to the Nazi invasion,” historian Mary Frances Coady told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “Pauline (Vanier) wrote in a letter that they were sitting on a volcano. So it took the utmost diplomacy for Roncalli to deal with that situation.”

While in Paris, Roncalli became fast friends with Pauline and Georges Vanier, the future governor general of Canada and his wife. Pauline would act as Roncalli’s hostess at diplomatic receptions. Not long after becoming Pope, John XXIII sent word that the Vaniers were to come visit him.

Retired St. Catharine’s, Ont., Bishop John O’Mara recalls how the invitation to the Vaniers was made.

“He (the pope) said to Cardinal (James) McGuigan in my presence, ‘You tell George Vanier to come over and visit me. Because,’ he said, ‘I’m not supposed to visit him.’ ”

The Vaniers and the future pope had shared quiet dinners in post-war Paris, of which there are no written records.

“I think what he (Roncalli) had in common with them was a simple and profound spiritual life and a robust sense of humour,” said Coady.

In 1953 Roncalli reached what he thought would be the last stop in his ecclesiastical career. He was made the cardinal, archbishop and patriarch of Venice. Five years later, when he was called to Rome to vote in the consistory to replace Pope Pius XII, the 76-year-old cardinal bought a return ticket. After the patrician papacy of Pope Pius XXII, the peasant boy from Soto il Monte did not expect to be pope.

But the cardinals were in a cautious mood and thought a holy, spiritual, wise and elderly Bishop of Rome would do little at a moment in history when it was uncertain what should be done. So they made Roncalli pope. But once he was pope, Roncalli knew what to do. He took the name John XXIII, eclipsing a prior John XXIII — a 15th-century antipope who shovelled money into the Medici family bank — to emphasize the ministry of unity. He also increased the wages of Vatican cleaners and tradespeople by as much as 40 per cent.

“We cannot always require others to observe the Church’s teaching on social justice if we do not apply it in our own domain,” he said. “The Church must take the lead in social justice by its own example.”

He visited prisons, wrote letters to children, dispensed with protocol, rankled at grand titles.

O’Mara remembers meeting the unfailingly kind pope when O’Mara was the young secretary to Toronto’s Cardinal McGuigan. While McGuigan met with the pope, O’Mara and the future Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic waited outside. With the meeting over, the pope came out and greeted the young priests. Remembering his own time as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo, Pope John passed on advice to O’Mara that he had received from Pope St. Pius X.

“He said a secretary was to be a good and faithful servant — and to remember that when I was with the cardinal,” said O’Mara. “He also told Fr. Ambrozic (then studying the Bible in Rome) to learn the Scriptures and enjoy the Scriptures but never twist the Scriptures.”

And then John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. He was opposed, but he was Pope.

He introduced the Catholic world to the word “aggiornamento” — bringing things up to date. He spoke of opening the windows of the Church. He wanted the Church to rediscover its relationship with the world.

“All the world is represented here tonight. Even the moon hastens close to watch this spectacle,” the pope told a huge crowd that had gathered spontaneously in St. Peter’s Square just as the ecumenical council began. “When you head home, hug and kiss your children and tell them: ‘This is the hug and the kiss of the pope.’ ”

The pope became deeply involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, appealing both to the first Catholic president of the United States, John Kennedy, and to Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev before making an appeal for peace to the world on Vatican Radio.

“We know later that Krushchev publicly acknowledged his gratitude and his debt to John XXIII for, as it were, letting him off the hook, giving him reason for withdrawing the ships which were carrying missiles to Cuba,” Jesuit historian Fr. Norman Tanner told Vatican Radio in 2012.

The pope confirmed this outward direction to the world with a subtle and well remembered detail in his most significant encyclical, Pacem in Terris — Peace on Earth. Traditionally, encyclicals were addressed to patriarchs, archbishops and bishops. It was the Church talking to the Church — with the Church narrowly defined as the hierarchy. But in the opening salutation of Pacem in Terris Pope John XXIII said his letter was to “the entire Catholic world, and to all men of good will.”

“(It is) the first example of a modern papal document that seeks to address all of humanity,” said theologian Catherine Clifford of Ottawa’s Saint Paul University. “It can be seen as a reflection of Pope John’s awareness of the necessity to speak to the world.”

Pacem in Terris, a universal cry for peace in a nuclear era, is often considered Pope John XXIII’s last will and testament. It was delivered just two months before he died of stomach cancer.

The Good Pope would not live to see the ecumenical council through its four sessions. However, a new figure was emerging who shared Pope John’s desire to equip the Church to address the world. A young Polish bishop was at the table as the fathers of Vatican II penned their most memorable words.

“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ,” begins the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. “Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men, of men who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards toward the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all men. That is why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history.”

It’s easy to imagine that Karol Wojtyla, the new archbishop of Krakow, inserted the word “solidarity” into that first paragraph. Wojtyla was always in the midst of history and never saw priesthood as reason to flee from the world.

He was born in 1920, during a brief interlude when Poland was not occupied. Before he was 20 the Nazis swept through and shut down the Jagiellonian University where he was studying. He worked as a stone cutter in a quarry and in a chemical plant to escape the Nazi deportation of young Poles to Germany.

It was in the context of an occupied Poland that Wojtyla first read St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila — discovering the transcendent spirituality of two saints who chose to submerge their selves so that a new identity in Christ could emerge. He fought for Polish culture by reading widely, writing poems and essays and acting in underground theatre productions.

In 1942 he entered an underground seminary, studying for the priesthood under Cardinal Adam Sapieha of Krakow.

After the war, Poland fell behind the Iron Curtain. Wojtyla was ordained in 1946 just prior to leaving for more advanced studies in Rome. His output during his first decade of priesthood was incredible. He received a licentiate in Rome and a doctorate from the Jagiellonian University, then another doctorate from the University of Lublin. He taught moral theology, social ethics and philosophy. He was chaplain to university students. He reached out to young intellectuals and professionals forming a circle of people concerned with the intersection of faith, philosophy and modern life. And he published a book on philosophical and theological aspects of marriage called Love and Responsibility.

On top of all that there was the skiing, hiking, kayaking and other activities. It was on a summer kayaking trip with friends in 1958 that Wojtyla learned he was to be ordained auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Six years later he became the first Archbishop of Krakow in residence in 13 years, negotiating the tricky relationship between the Church and a communist dictatorship that believed the Church must wither and die. But materialist, Marxist philosophy was no match for Archbishop Wojtyla.

He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and helped draft three important documents: Gaudium et Spes; the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae; and the Decree on Instruments of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica.

In 1967 Pope Paul VI made Wojtyla a cardinal. He became an ever-present, unstoppable force on Catholicism’s world stage. He was invited to every synod. The only time he didn’t go was when communist maneuvering prevented Polish primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski from obtaining a passport. Wojtyla stayed home in solidarity.

After the 33-day papacy of Pope John Paul I, Cardinal Wojtyla, age 58, became Pope John Paul II on Oct. 16, 1978, declaring a papacy that would be in continuity with his predecessor and with Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.

Within his first year he outlined the Church’s mission in and to the world on two fronts. First was a pastoral visit to Krakow to close the synod he had opened seven years before. Second was an encyclical which laid out his convictions about the Second Vatican Council and his vision for a papacy that would last longer than even he ever imagined.

A Pope with modern media in tow as he broke through the Iron Curtain and won the hearts of a colonized and oppressed people, he did far more harm to the Soviet empire than divisions of soldiers ever could have. He told Polish people they were a nation that deserved the opportunity to shape its own destiny. As the economics of the communist world began to implode, the Pope emboldened people throughout Eastern Europe to seize their freedom.

Catholics learned of the new Pope’s plan for the Church in 1979 as John Paul II issued the first of 14 encyclicals he would write over 27 years. Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) declared Jesus the centre of the universe and history. His saving act in becoming human, dying on a cross and rising to new life, frees each and every person from fatalism, ideologies and hopeless systems that enslave millions.

“The world of the new age, the world of space flights, the world of the previously unattained conquests of science and technology — is it not also the world ‘groaning in travail’ that ‘waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God?’ ” Pope John Paul II wrote.

He believed the Second Vatican Council was the Church’s opportunity to reclaim the world for Christ — which perhaps explains 104 pastoral trips outside of Italy, including nine to Poland, seven to the United States, four each to Brazil, Portugal and Switzerland and three to Canada.

Every country he visited will claim a special relationship to Pope John Paul II, so why shouldn’t Canada? From Sept. 9-20, 1984 the pope uncovered an almost hidden Catholic Canada.

There were 200,000 along the motorcade route as he went from Toronto’s airport to Nathan Phillips Square. At the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., Pope John Paul II led 250,000 in prayer. He also began a process of mutual recognition and reconciliation between aboriginal Canadians and the Christian Europeans who colonized their land.

In 1987, the pope fulfilled a promise he made to the native Canadians of Ft. Simpson in the Northwest Territories when, in 1984, fog forced his plane to land 350 kilometres short of the remote northern community. He promised then he would return and used a 1987 visit to the United States to fulfill that pledge.

In 2002 it was World Youth Day in Toronto. More than 800,000 attended the closing Mass in a field of mud at Downsview Park. As John Paul urged young people to lay claim to their dignity and their hope in Jesus Christ, to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, rainclouds parted and sun celebrated with the people.

The Regina theologian Salkeld counts himself as one of the John Paul II generation. He attended World Youth Days with the Polish pope in Toronto and Rome.

“For most of us who went, those were formative moments in our journey as Christians and our growing identity as Catholics,” said Salkeld. “It gave us a picture of the whole Catholic world when we lived in communities where we were outliers and maybe even a little strange or regressive.”

As Pope John Paul II took on the world — arguing against the communists, the capitalists, the abortionists, the narrow nationalists — he was determined that the Church would enter the third millennium with a clean heart and eyes open. Leading up to 2000 he spoke often of the “healing of memories.” He visited Israel and Auschwitz and reached out to Jews. He sent messages to the Orthodox and asked all Christians to help him re-imagine the exercise of his papal office. At the opening of the great jubilee year of 2000, the pope knelt before the Holy Door and begged forgiveness for sins committed in the name of the Church.

His last years were hard. In planning for his 2002 visit to World Youth Day a group of official photographers worried how they should portray a pope who was frail, dying. “What if he dies, should I photograph that?” one asked. It was a question that missed the lesson Pope John Paul II was teaching. Like every great dramatist, the veteran actor was using his body, his entire person, to communicate an essential truth about being human. He wanted our culture, obsessed as it is with youth and strength, to face our human limitations.

He reminded us all that, like Christ, we too can be more human if we choose to hold on a little more tightly to the divine.

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