A double canonization for the Church

It seems unprecedented today that Pope Francis has so quickly been anointed with “rock star” status, the highest accolade that our popular culture bestows upon its heroes.  Already during the first year of his Pontificate his humble smiling image has graced the cover of Time, Esquire and other secular periodicals.  He is certainly the first pope to have his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine!  He has been depicted as Superman by a graffiti artist on the streets of Rome.  The Holy Father wisely ignores this sort of popular acclaim.  He knows that it is likely to fade as quickly as the morning dew! 

But on April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis will preside at the double canonization of two of his predecessors who each in their own time won the hearts and fired the imaginations of the Church and the wider world.   They are being offered to the Church and to the world not as “rock stars” but as saints.  Through the canonization of Saint John Paul II and Saint John XXIII Pope Francis is affirming the kind of human and Christian qualities that have enduring universal value, indeed eternal value. 

Canonization is a juridical act of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, declaring that the canonized person is, in fact, in heaven.   Following a rigorous investigation into the holiness of their lives, the soundness of their teaching and witness, and the power of their heavenly intercession, those who are canonized are acknowledged to be worthy of our veneration since they are indeed friends of Christ.  Their lives point to Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

 

The upcoming double canonization in Rome elevates to the altars two of the greatest popes of the Twentieth Century and of the whole modern era: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. 

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, was elected to the See of Peter in 1958 at an already advanced age.  He chose the name John XXIII. His papacy was anticipated by most people to be merely a place-holder since the Church had just buried a pope who had served for nearly 20 years during the crucible of a world war and its challenging aftermath.  Instead, Good Pope John, as he was affectionately called because of his kindness and frequent visits to the jails of Rome, rocked the Church and world by calling for an ecumenical council.  He opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 praying for a New Pentecost to renew the Church and position it more effectively to carry out its mission in the modern world.

Pope John Paul II was elected to the See of Peter in 1978 after the 33-day pontificate of Pope John Paul I.  If the sudden death of his predecessor were not shocking enough, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Kracow, was the first non-Italian elected to the papacy in more than 450 years.  His papacy would not be business as usual.  His long 27-year pontificate enabled him to fully implement the reforms and provide an authoritative interpretation of the teachings of Vatican II in which he participated as a young bishop from Poland.  Under his leadership, the Church renewed its evangelical spirit responding to his insistent call for a New Evangelization.  He repeatedly emphasized the Council’s teaching on the Universal Call to Holiness by canonizing an unprecedented number of men and women from all across the globe as models of holiness for all of the faithful.  He made the papacy a truly global phenomenon by travelling the world on frequent pastoral visits and calling together young people for remarkably successful evangelical gatherings which we know today as World Youth Day.  These visits became the occasion for some of the largest gatherings in all of human history.  His extraordinary charisma, moral strength and profound faith in the liberating power of the truth provided the catalyst that led to the fall of communism in his native Poland and throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. 

The lives of each of these men have a strong personal resonance for me.  Pope John XXIII was the first pope I remember.  He died on my eighth birthday on June 3, 1963.  I remember that day; and I grew up in the shadow of the Second Vatican Council which he inaugurated.  Pope John Paul II became pope the fall that I began seminary in 1978.  He was the pope who inspired me during my seminary formation and my entire life as a priest.  He truly became my hero as I watched him, listened to him and learned from him.  Finally, he appointed me bishop and I had the privilege to meet him on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 a few months before his death.

Many who read this will have their own memories of these two holy shepherds, these newest saints of the Church.  Regardless of whether we remember them, Pope Francis offers their lives to us as worthy of veneration and imitation.  The saints are reminders that each one of us, by virtue of our baptism, is called to be a saint.  May it be so!  Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us!