Tomorrow, the Second Sunday of Easter, will be a historic day for the Roman Catholic Church: we will see the canonization of two twentieth century pontiffs, John Paul II and John XXIII. Both men were undoubtedly movers and shakers in their time.
St. John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła) was a young, handsome, and charismatic pope whose long-lived papacy saw stellar achievements in ecumenicism, the decline of communism, and in raising the profile of the Church in the developing world. Despite these accomplishments, St. John Paul II’s papacy was not without its controversies and many individuals, both inside and outside the Church, have laid harsh criticism for St. JPII’s tepid handling of the sex abuse crisis, the silencing of many prominent liberal theologians, the growing conservatism and centralization of power in the Church, the discrimination against women, the propagation of conservative policies in regards to sexuality and contraception, especially in light of the AIDS crisis, and the list goes on… I won’t comment further on the controversial aspects of St. JPII’s canonization, but further reading can be seen here and here.
St. John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli) on the other hand was an unlikely pontiff – he was old and over-weight, and, seemingly, not a very charismatic figure prior to his election. He was in office for only four and a half years, compared with JPII’s 27 years in office. Yet, with St. John XXIII, we see a pope enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and, as we read about so often in the history of our Church, God chose an unlikely instrument as His vessel. St. John XXIII was inspired to call the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which has breathed fresh air into the Church and brought it into the modern era. Amazingly, despite St. John XXIII’s death less than a year after calling the Council, the workings of the Holy Spirit continued beyond his papacy and even beyond the sessions of the Council itself, to transform the old, rigid Church into a living, breathing assembly of and for the people of God.
The video below, which was filmed in an Italian prison early on in St. John XXIII’s papacy, shows the Good Pope inflamed with the love of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When giving a benediction to the inmates, St. John XXIII entreats his “dear sons and dear brothers” and acknowledges their presence in “the house of the Father”. As he will eventually do in the Church with the Second Vatican Council, St. John XXIII reinvigorates these inmates with the message of the infinite mercy of God; that no matter what we do, or how sinful we are, we never cease to be children of God, living “in the house of the Father”. It is this message of oneness with each other, of solidarity with the least amongst us (not just the poor, but also those whom we have condemned), and of mercy, that needs to resound in our hearts more than ever.