Monday, September 30, 2013

John XXIII and JPII: Two Saintly Points on the Church's Trajectory

It's easy to note the distinctions between John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005), two popes we now know will be canonized on April 27, 2014.
John XXIII was the good-humored roly poly son of Italian peasants; John Paul II was the handsome, sturdy Polish athlete and actor. John XXIII's brief pontificate "opened the windows" and sparked the most sweeping reforms in the modern history of the Church; John Paul II's quarter century on Peter's chair saw a highly visible pontiff playing a part in the fall of Communism and calling for a strident defense of Catholic teaching in the face of secular culture.

But these aren't so much differences as a reflection on how God gives us different gifts for different times. And what unites these two popes is how they both played critical roles at two different points on one trajectory: the Church in the modern world. We can see this is numerous areas:

Travel: John Paul II will always be remembered for his record-shattering
globetrotting, going on nearly 200 trips over 26 years, pioneering World Youth Day and bringing the papacy to nearly every corner of the globe. But it was John XXIII who first broke the practice of the pope as "prisoner of the Vatican," which had endured for decades. While he never traveled outside Italy as pope, John rode the rails from Rome to Assisi to pray for the success of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis has already followed the lead of JPII with his memorable time in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day. He's also traveling to Assisi in early October to pray for the success of a new round of Church reforms.

Laws and teachings: When John XXIII made his surprise announcement on January 25, 1959, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, he not only called for an ecumenical, but also for a synod for the Diocese of Rome and a revision to the 1917 Code of Canon Law. John would live to open the Council on October 11, 1962, but the revised Code of Canon Law would not be promulgated till nearly 20 years after his death, on January 25, 1983. In both cases, the Council and the Code, John and John Paul fit the respective roles of instigator and codifier.

Other Christians: Well before Vatican II issued its degree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, in 1964, John XXIII had begun the thaw between the Catholic Church and other Christians. His jovial manner made him a natural at this, and in terms of rhetoric, he replaced "heretics and schismatics" with "our separated brethren" when referring to Christians who'd been divided from the Catholic Church for centuries or, in the case of the Eastern Orthodox, a millennium. Representatives of these groups were invited as official observers to the Council, and one of the long range goals of Vatican II was to promote Christian unity. John Paul II made a major contribution to the cause with his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, in which he invited non-Catholic Christians to dialogue with him about how the ministry of the pope could be exercised in a way that promoted unity between them.

Other religions: The good will surrounding the Council didn't stop with other Christians, of course. Its final document, Nostra Aetate (1965), affirmed the good of numerous world religions, including the Catholic Church's special relationship with the Jewish people. John XXIII had pushed for such a declaration. In his short pontificate, he had stunned a Jewish delegation by telling them, "I am Joseph, your brother," and removed language offensive to Jews from the Good Friday prayers. John Paul II made the first official papal visit to a synagogue in 1986 and, the same year, led a historic interfaith day of prayer in Assisi for world peace.

Communications and Charisma: Finally, both John XXIII and John Paul II exemplified how the personality of a pope can work wonders in spreading the Gospel in the mass communications age, whether at the dawn of the television era or spanning a time from the rise of cable news to the advent of the Internet and social media. Both men showed the world the face of a loving universal pastor. Now, in canonizing both men, Pope Francis is affirming the journey the Church has taken over the last 50 years and holding up two distinct, yet complementary models of holiness as we journey into the future.

(Photo of John XXIII CNS File Photo, photo of John Paul II CNS Photo/Joe Rinkus Jr.)

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