It was announced from the Vatican on Monday that Blessed Pope John Paul II and Blessed John XXIII will be canonized together on Sunday, April 27th, the Second Sunday of Easter. That day is also known as Divine Mercy Sunday, so named after the feast that St. Faustina Kowalska described in her Diary the the feast of Divine Mercy which Our Lord introduced to her. Also being raised to the official sainthood is Pope John XXIII, on the same day and at the same liturgy. One pope, John XXIII, ushered the Church into the modern era with the Second Vatican Council, while the other battled both Communism and moral relativism during the second-longest reign of any Bishop of Rome-only Peter himself led the Church on earth for a longer period of time.
In a post earlier this week, I discussed how this Pontificate is shaping up to be one that is really focused on mercy, and the decision to canonize two of the most significant popes of the last century on the day in the ecclesiastical calendar devoted to Divine Mercy continues to give us some exterior proof of that focus.
As a personal observation, it seems to me that Blessed John XXIII, along with his successor Pope Paul VI, were the popes of the generation of the 60’s and 70’s. By that I mean that between those two Pontiffs, they defined the papacy and the Church in a very real way for people of their time. Blessed John Paul II was the Pontiff who helped show the Church and the world what it meant to evangelize, and what it meant to be Catholic in the period after Vatican II, what we might call the post-conciliar age. John Paul defined the Church in what would be (though he could not have known it when his pontificate began) the final years of world Communism as a political force and the end of the Cold War. Not unlike our current Holy Father, John Paul II focused repeatedly on the mercy of God and appealed to lost people to return to the fold. It was John Paul who elevated Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the College of Cardinals.
People who came of age during my generation, whether they are a convert to the faith like me, or whether they were born and raised Catholic, identify strongly with the once-Archbishop of Krakow, partly because his words and actions spoke to us of holiness, of the importance of faith in society, and of freedom. Many of those reading this blog post will probably remember when Blessed John Paul II died, and a lot of us felt then that the world was about to witness the funeral of a saint. We are all called to be saints, and you don’t have to change the world to be a saint or to be holy, but John Paul II certainly used his position to try and do just that.
The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who along with John Paul and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, helped perpetuate the decline of the Soviet Communist bloc in the 1980’s once said that “without the great Polish Pope” she did not believe that the fall of Soviet Communism would have been possible. Those of you who grew up in the later years of the Cold War like I did may remember that in the back of some of our little minds was the fear that “the Russians,” in those days they were nameless and faceless monsters to us, might launch an attack of missiles one day, perhaps in the dead of night. We no longer live with that fear (though new fears have replaced it), largely because of the persistence of Blessed John Paul II.
John Paul didn’t just spend the time of his pontificate on political matters, in fact he spent relatively little time on such things compared to the time he spent traveling the world to spread the message of the Gospel to the farthest corners of the earth. He visited every continent except Antarctica, and had someone on the seventh continent needed to hear the message of the Good News, we can rest assured that he likely would have been found there as well. He re-iterated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that we need a new evangelization, and World Youth Day, an event that the Catholic world takes for granted today, was his brainchild. He wanted young people not only to grow in faith, but to have a reason for believing. True to his own roots as a priest and teacher who ministered to young people, he always felt at his most comfortable around youth.
Pope Francis has taken no small amount of criticism in some quarters for his openness to the media and his willingness to engage the culture head-on, and so far he has indicated a willingness to have this engagement on the secular culture’s own turf. That has made some Catholic commentators and, as I pointed out in the previous post here, many in what we would call the Catholic blogosphere and social media very uneasy. There is precedent for it, however, and that precedent is Pope John Paul II. No, John Paul didn’t give two interviews one after the other that were seen by some to be earth-shattering, but he did talk to the press with far less reserve than had previously been seen in the papacy. One such exchange would result in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. John Paul thoroughly shattered what had been the convention of the Holy See up to his time, and in the long run the Church was so much better for it.