By Corrine Winter
On Sunday, April 27, the Church will celebrate the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Thinking about the two of them, one might at first be struck by differences. Pope John XXIII, elected as an older man (age 76), served a rather short time (1958–1963). He surprised many in the Church by calling for a general council to address the mission of the Church within a rapidly changing world. Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, was elected when considerably younger (age 58 — the youngest to have been elected since 1846) and served as pope for over two decades (1978–2005). He is sometimes credited with calling the Church back from what he and others viewed as exaggerations connected with the implementation of Vatican II.
On the other hand, both of these popes, men who knew firsthand the effects of oppressive governments, called the Church to apply its wisdom and influence to addressing the needs of humankind. Pope John did this through several encyclicals and especially through the direction of the Council. Pope John Paul exerted tremendous influence through his travels, his writings and his direct engagement with world leaders. He is credited with playing a key role in the collapse of the communist Soviet Union.
John XXIII, in his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, asserted that the Church is called to care for all people and for every aspect of human life: “though the Church’s first care must be for souls … she concerns herself too with the exigencies of man’s daily life, with his livelihood and education, and his general, temporal welfare and prosperity (MM3).” In 1963, the pope published Pacem in Terris, calling for unstinting efforts to end the arms race and to establish among nations as among individuals, relationships grounded in right reason. The rights of all should be respected, and development should, he said, benefit all people and nations rather than a privileged few. The latter encyclical also broke new ground in that it was explicitly addressed not only to Catholics, but to all people of good will.
Pope John Paul continued the work for a just world order. As a bishop at Vatican II, he contributed to the drafting of Gaudium et Spes. He published several encyclicals on social justice, and during his world travels often preached on the obligation of all people and all nations to see that human dignity is upheld, work is fairly compensated, and neither individuals nor nations exploit others. He addressed the complex and rapid processes of globalization and the growing need for regulations to protect the rights of the least powerful within these systems.
But canonization is primarily about holiness of life. Writings are examined primarily for consistency with Church teaching. One whose cause has been presented for canonization is called first a “Servant of God.” Then, after a “Decree of Heroic Virtues” is presented to and accepted by the pope, she or he is declared “Venerable.” The last stages, beatification and canonization (with the reports and examination of miracles) are familiar to many because they are often widely publicized even by secular media.
Among the heroic virtues of both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II must be included love for the Church and for all of God’s people, determination to serve even in the face of personal suffering, and courage in helping those in special need or peril. Pope John served as a military chaplain during World War I. Both men sought to help Jews during the Nazi regime. Pope John, being older and already holding ecclesial office, provided baptismal certificates to Jews. During his papacy, Pope John Paul was an active member of resistance movements in Poland. As the communists took over, he continued to resist the new forms of oppression. In addition, many of us can probably recall the news stories from the assassination attempt early in his pontificate and his visit to the prison to forgive the perpetrator.
As two popes are canonized, some may have a greater devotion to one or the other, depending on our experience of the Church and the world. That is, after all, true about our devotion to saints in general. Some have great devotion to saints that others never think about. Some of us are more inspired by what we know of the holy lives of people who are or have been close to us but who, not being widely known, will never be canonized. The Church canonizes some in hopes of inspiring many to live lives of great virtue. Holiness is, after all, the vocation of all people.