This coming Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church will receive a great gift: two new saints. The canonization of two modern-day Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, is an occasion for us all to celebrate and give thanks. How blessed the Church has been by their witness to the Gospel and their holiness of life!
I remember as a young seminarian reading Pope John XXIII’s account of his inner life entitled Journal of a Soul, a kind of spiritual autobiography. Reading that book touched me deeply 30 some years ago. In reflecting on the purpose of his life two years before he died, Pope John wrote six maxims of perfection that are great counsel for us in our own spiritual journeys:
1. Desire only to be virtuous and holy, and so be pleasing to God.
2. Direct all things, thoughts as well as actions, to the increase, the service and the glory of Holy Church.
3. Recognize that I have been set here by God, and therefore remain perfectly serene about all that happens, not only as regards myself but with regard to the Church, continuing to work and suffer with Christ, for her good.
4. Entrust myself at all times to Divine Providence.
5. Always acknowledge my own nothingness.
6. Always arrange my day in an intelligent and orderly manner.
I still today find these maxims to be gems of spiritual wisdom. Pope John was a man of great humility who always recognized that the disciple is not above his master (Matthew 10:24). He loved the Lord and the people he was called to serve: in Italy as a priest, then as a papal diplomat in Bulgaria, Turkey, and France, then as Patriarch of Venice, and then as Pope. He was called “Good Pope John.” His goodness touched the hearts of millions of people.
At the Mass beatifying John XXIII in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II mentioned the image of Pope John’s smiling face and his two arms outstretched embracing the whole world. He said: How many people were won over by Pope John’s simplicity of heart! Pope John Paul also spoke about Pope John’s “prophetic insight” in convening the Second Vatican Council which “opened a season of hope for Christians and for humanity.”
The holiness of Pope John XXIII is summed up in his last testament to the Church where he wrote: What counts the most in life is blessed Jesus Christ, his holy Church, his Gospel, truth and goodness.
I don’t know where to begin in writing a bit about a man whom I knew to be a saint when in his presence: Pope John Paul II. Perhaps a good place to begin is to recall the words with which he began his historic 27-year pontificate: Be not afraid and Open wide the doors to Christ. The great John Paul had an unshakeable faith in Christ. He taught us to trust always in the divine mercy. He witnessed to us the hope of the Gospel.
Pope John Paul II was a great evangelizer, traveling as Pope on 104 pastoral visits outside Italy, including seven trips to the United States. He did so to bring the Gospel, like Saint Paul, to the nations. He wrote 14 wonderful encyclicals and so many other writings and books. He gave us the theology of the body, amazing insights on human love. He established the World Youth Days. And we all know how he was a major influence in the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
It is impossible to write in this short column about all the many accomplishments of Pope John Paul II, as a priest and bishop in Poland and as the shepherd of the universal Church. These accomplishments were the fruit of something deeper, the reason he is being canonized, namely, his sanctity.
I would call Pope John Paul II a radical disciple of Jesus Christ. He had an inner bond with Christ, sustained by his deep prayer life. His deepest insights about our human condition and our calling were expressed in words that he helped craft in the document Guadium et Spes at the Second Vatican Council: Christ reveals man fully to himself and makes his supreme calling clear. John Paul believed this with all his heart and thus taught that “man cannot fully find himself” except by imitating Jesus Christ in the “sincere gift of himself” to others. This is what John Paul II taught and lived: the gift of himself in love. He lived this to the end. He taught us how to live and how to die “in the Lord.” He taught us not to be afraid and to open our hearts to Christ.
Pope John Paul’s spiritual life included a profound relationship with our Blessed Mother. His motto as bishop and pope was “Totus tuus,” “All Yours.” He placed everything in the hands of our Blessed Mother. In his last will and testament, he said that he was leaving everything and everyone with whom his life and vocation brought him into contact in Mary’s motherly hands. Mary was his guide since his youth. He entrusted his life and his service to the Church to Mary.
Pope John Paul II exhibited a strength and courage that came to him from God. And he communicated that strength to us and to the world. It is the strength of faith, of belief in Christ as the Redeemer of man. This was the title of his first encyclical: The Redeemer of Man, the thread that, according to Pope Benedict, ran through all the others.
Even when Pope John Paul’s physical strength declined, his spiritual strength remained. This was because of his faith. He embraced the cross with Jesus and showed the whole world through his suffering how to be one with Jesus.
We have all been blessed by the witness and example of these two amazing popes who will be canonized by Pope Francis this coming Sunday, April 27th. Let us thank the Lord for the gifts of these two new saints who led the Church with such love and fidelity. Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, pray for us!