Today in Rome two great Popes are being canonized as Saints. They are Pope John XXIII, called “Good Pope John,” and Pope John Paul II, called “The Great.” It is a happy day for the Church, and I am sure it will be quite a wonderful and moving ceremony in Rome. I would like to look briefly at each of these newly minted Saints, examining Pope St. John XXIII today, and next week Pope St. John Paul II.
Pope John XXIII is (at least to me) a very inspirational figure. He was a great pastor who loved people, and a man of courage. He was born in northern Italy, near Bergamo, the first son and fourth child of local sharecroppers. He was one of 13 children. Through his entire life Pope John XXIII maintained his common touch and connection to ordinary people, and I think that is what made him both so beloved and so wise.
He was ordained a priest in 1904, studied Canon Law and became the Bishop’s secretary, which was a career path up in the Church. In WWI he became a stretcher bearer in the Italian army and had first-hand experience of the horror of war. He then became a Papal diplomat. During WWII in Turkey it is estimated he helped to save about 24,000 Jews from the Nazis. Sometimes he did this by issuing bogus baptismal certificates. This was a man who understood that human lives are more important than church records. He had his priorities right.
In 1953 he was named Cardinal of Venice. He would have been content to stay there, but a month before his 78th birthday, he was elected Pope. He had gone to Rome for the Papal election with a return ticket to Venice, so clearly he did not expect to be elected. Pope John XXIII took his office very seriously, but never took himself too seriously. His pithy wit and humorous sayings were legendary. When asked how many people work in the Vatican, he replied “about half.”
Less than three months after his election as Pope, Good Pope John delivered a bombshell at a Papal Audience on January 25 (the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul!), when he announced that he was calling an Ecumenical Council. It came as a shock to the Cardinals present (and for many an unwelcome one), who remained stonily silent. That evening, under a full moon, Pope John XXIII held a candlelight audience in St. Peter’s Square. He spoke warmly and personally to the crowd, and told them to go home and to “give their children a kiss of goodnight, from the Pope" himself. John had all the warmth and human tenderness we now see in Pope Francis.
In the opening session of Vatican Council II Pope John stated:
“What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith…What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men's moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth…is something else.”
Having started the great work of Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII would not see it completed. He died June 3, 1963 after only one session of the Council. May Pope St. John XXIII pray for us!