Two Modern Saints for the Modern World

Pope Francis shook the Catholic world on July 5th, 2013, with the announcement that Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be canonized together on April 27th, 2014.

Pope Francis approved the healing of Floribeth Mora of Costa Rica from a brain aneurysm as miraculous, making it the second approved miracle attributed to the beloved Polish pope who passed away in 2005. The first miracle was the healing of a French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who had been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease—the very ailment that John Paul II suffered from. Both of these women prayed for John Paul’s intercession and both of their prayers have been answered.

Although the Vatican has recognized only one miracle through the intercession of Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis has waived the requirement for a second during the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council—which John XXIII convened—due to the Pontiff’s unquestionable holiness.

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, ministered in the See of St. Peter from 1958 to 1963. Before becoming pope, he had been a hospital orderly and military chaplain during World War I, served as an Eastern Vatican diplomatist, and helped transport Jews to safety out of Eastern European countries under Nazi occupation. Following the death of Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Roncalli was elected John the XXIII, and his papacy was marked by a courageous approach to the world, whether Catholic, Communist, or secular. He embraced the opportunity to use his papacy as a means of collecting his flock together and ministering to the lost of Christ’s universal fold.

Though traditional in spirit, Pope John was not heedless of the cultural revolutions that were raging at that time, and wished to help the Church both call and cure the modernist masses. He was sensitive to the anachronism that the Church was stigmatized with, and decided upon a strategy to throw open her doors to a changing world. The Second Vatican Council of 1962 was John’s bold appeal for pastoral restoration and renewal by the light of the Holy Spirit.

Pope John Paul II

In 1978, when the Church was caught up in the confused aftermath of Vatican II and the controversial clarity of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, a marvel of a man ascended to the Throne of St. Peter. John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyła, became the first non-Italian pope in 450 years. Poet, actor, playwright, philosopher, linguist, Pope John Paul II was a Pole who had survived the horrors of World War II, witnessing both Nazi terrors and Communist tyranny. He studied secretly for the priesthood while constantly dodging the murderous Nazi squads, and served his Soviet-occupied Poland after his ordination and later as Archbishop of Kraków.

When elected Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II was a beacon of hope and joy to the West, even as the Soviet regime began to tremble in his growing shadow. Young, energetic, wise, and effusive of a sublime goodness, this pope immediately found the ability to appeal to the personality-driven appetites of modern man and modern media. He was uniquely adept in using his experiences and sufferings to wield authority and command attention when speaking to a secular world on the sanctity and dignity of human life. John Paul had confronted the powers of hell and death and emerged with wisdom, joie de vivre, gravitas, and a face that positively glowed with the kindness of Christ.

Unlike his predecessors, Pope John Paul II turned the abuses of Vatican II into good uses. The documents that had been overlooked in a flood of reforms were now bent sharply on Communist totalitarianism with the declaration that religious freedom is a fundamental right. The vernacular was now utilized as a means of popular rejuvenation, and greater lay participation lead to sanctifying life and labor as a prayer. In time, Communism collapsed under his peaceful revolution, a vibrant youth culture grew around JPII, and movements like Opus Dei flourished.

So active was John Paul, he became the most travelled pope in history and author of fourteen encyclicals. He advocated Humanae Vitae and preached vehemently against the culture of death and materialism. He forgave the man who shot him in St. Peter’s Square in person. He apologized to the Jews for centuries of disparagement and maltreatment, visiting Auschwitz in Polish kinship to their afflictions, and prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. He was the first pope to visit a mosque in his efforts to maintain inter-faith dialogue. For all his travels, politics, and charm, however, what made Pope John Paul II a charismatic man was not that he was a modern man, but that he was a modern saint.

Modern Saints for the Modern World

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be canonized this spring not so much for philosophies that were contemporary, but for faith that was conventional. They were not so much men of the modern world as they were modern saints in the world. Though John may be the favorite of left-wing Catholics, and John Paul the favorite of right-wing Catholics, heaven is the common Catholic goal—and it takes two wings to fly, Pope Francis reminds us.

The decision to canonize these two popes together is consistent with the encompassing ethos in Francis’ papal approach toward factions within his flock. (Keep in mind this is the Jesuit who chose Francis of Assisi and not Francis Xavier as his patron.) These canonizations may be seen as more of a loving outreach within the Church rather than outside of it, reminding all Catholics that though these popes differed in their ideologies and pastoral methodologies, their united intention was to hold the Church united through the storms of modernity. Although Catholic liberals hail John XXIII as their progressive champion, and Catholic conservatives honor John Paul II as their traditional hero, the pedagogy of Pope Francis indicates that all Catholics are Catholic—we are one. These canonizations signal a victory for the Church Militant, and not for just one camp within it. The differences that divide progressives and conservatives are not nearly as significant as the Faith that binds them. The reason for the canonization of these two very different men is not simply that they were both upright in their politics and principles, but that they were both upright before God and served His Church fearlessly.

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be canonized because they were not afraid to be saints. Pope Francis knows this well, and their official induction to sainthood is a message to all. These are fearful times, and Catholics would do well to recall their role models in Christ who were not only men of modern times, but modern-time saints.

“Be not afraid.”

John Paul II often repeated this exhortation of Our Lord. I recall very vividly being at his last World Youth Day in Toronto, 2002. “The Pope is old but you are young,” he said in a broken, faltering voice. Then he paused, gathering his strength, and cried out like a clap of thunder: “Do not be afraid!” May these words fill our hearts now as they did mine in that moment as we remember and venerate these two popes, these two saints. In the words of Pope Saint John Paul II from his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

We need, perhaps more than ever, the words of the Risen Christ: “Be not afraid!” Man who, even after the fall of Communism, has not stopped being afraid and who truly has many reasons for feeling this way, needs to hear these words… Peoples and nations of the entire world need to hear these words. Their conscience needs to grow in the certainty that Someone exists who holds in His hands the destiny of this passing world; Someone who holds the keys to death and the netherworld; Someone who is the Alpha and the Omega of human history—be it the individual or collective history. And this Someone is Love—Love that became man, Love crucified and risen, Love unceasingly present among men. It is Eucharistic Love. It is the infinite source of communion. He alone can give the ultimate assurance when He says “Be not afraid!”

image: zprecech /


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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