Three Vatican “Pope-Saints”

Our beloved Pope Francis is well into his eighth year as leader of the universal Church. Elected on March 13, 2013, he was officially inaugurated on the solemnity of Saint Joseph on March 19. These past years (2013-2020) have been filled with intense activity. The most recently compiled Vatican statistics from Rome (March 19, 2018) illustrate Francis’ very many pastoral involvements.

The Vatican 2018 data noted that Francis had made 22 international trips, traveling 154,906 miles—equivalent to six journeys around the world. In addition, he has made 18 pastoral visits within Italy and 16 parish visits within his diocese of Rome. He has canonized 880 saints, created 61 cardinals, led 219 general audiences which include catechetical reflections on various themes: sacraments, Church, family, mercy, faith, Christian hope, and the Mass. He has prayed the Angelus and Regina Coeli with visitors 286 times.

In addition, as of 2018, Francis has issued 42 major documents, including the encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato Sí, apostolic exhortations Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia, and Gaudete et Exsultate, as well as the bull Misericordiae Vultus. He has called four synods of bishops and declared two special years on consecrated life and on mercy. He has attended or announced three World Youth Days (Brazil, Poland, and Panama). And this list of activities (extending from March 19, 2013-2018) needs to be augmented by adding his continuing pastoral engagements in recent months and years!

However, one remarkable “achievement” that was not included in the statistics issued by the Vatican Press Office is that Pope Francis has canonized three popes: John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. While this presentation does not delve into the merits of popes canonizing other popes, it does highlight a unique contribution of Pope Francis. And, in the mind of this author, it is significant that all these three “pope-saints” were active participants in Vatican II. Thus, one could validly assert that Pope Francis has not simply canonized three “Vatican II Popes”; he has also canonized the legacy of the Second Vatican Council.

This piece now turns to presenting a “brief glimpse” or “quick snapshot” of these canonized saints; it highlights their missionary contribution and illustrates the admiration that Pope Francis has for each of these three new saints.

Saint John XXIII: Joyful Pope

Pope John XXIII, along with John Paul II, was declared a saint on April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday. Over the years of his short pontificate (1958-1963) John XXIII became a beloved figure worldwide; he was popularly known as “Good Pope John.” He is remembered for the convocation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965); his annual feast day on October 11 is fixed to commemorate his opening of Vatican II on October 11, 1962. Each year as the Church celebrates this saint, we are asked to recall the pivotal role of Vatican II in the ongoing life and mission of the Church.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncali, the fourth of thirteen children of peasant farmers, was born in the village of Sotto il Monte in Northern Italy on November 25, 1881. He entered the seminary as a young boy. Significantly, at the tender age of fifteen he began writing his spiritual diary, which was published as Journal of a Soul shortly after his death. Undoubtedly, Pope John’s aim in life was to be a holy priest. One could validly say that he always tried to be a saint—and he made it!

Papal Contributions

Beginning his pontificate at age seventy-seven on October 28, 1958, Angelo Roncalli brought a whole new pastoral and personal style to the papacy. Describing the person and contribution of John XXIII during his visit to Bergamo on June 3, 2013 (50th anniversary of John’s death), Pope Francis noted that John XXIII’s life is a lesson in how obedience and trust in God lead to interior peace.

Pope Francis said: “The whole world recognized Pope John as a pastor and father, a pastor because he was a father…. It is so beautiful to find a priest, a good priest, filled with goodness.” He was “an effective weaver of relationships and a solid champion of unity, both in the ecclesiastical community and outside it.” He was always “open to dialogue with the Christians of other churches, with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim worlds and with many other people of good will.”

Pope Francis said that John XXIII’s decision to convoke Vatican II was the result of a “prophetic intuition” based on his “love for the Church’s traditions and his awareness of the constant need for renewal.” The Council and Pope John’s “offering of his life for its success” Francis said, are “a bright beacon for the journey that lies ahead…. Let yourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid to take risks, just as he was not afraid.”

Genuine Spirituality

John XXIII’s outlook is, in fact, a spirituality that he communicated to the world. He took the call to holiness seriously throughout his entire life. His profound trust was evident in his simplicity, patience, gentleness and affability, qualities manifested in all his varied writings.

John XXIII could be very forceful in asserting his conviction that the Christian faith should result in deep, joyful hope. In his opening speech to the Second Vatican Council he said: “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand” (quoted by Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 84). He believed that divine providence was renewing humanity and, through a perceptive reading of the “signs of the times” (cf. EG 14, 51, 108), one could discern that by God’s designs a new order of human relations was emerging in the contemporary world.

Daily Decalogue of John XXIII

In his homily on October 11, 2006 commemorating the opening of Vatican II, Cardinal Bertone quoted what is widely known as the “Daily Decalogue of Pope John XXIII.” The following are some excerpts:

(1) Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once;

(2) Only for today … I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or discipline anyone except myself;

(3) Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one;

(4) Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes;

(5) Only for today, I will devote ten minutes of my time to some good reading….”

Pope John’s Deca-logue continues: (6) Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it;

(7) Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices;

(8) Only for today, I will make a plan for myself; I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it….

(9) Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me…; and

(10) Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness….” We marvel at John XXIII’s wisdom and seek to put it into practice—each and every day!

Saint John XXIII, a holy man with a great heart, radiated an infectious optimism and joy. Radically open to the Holy Spirit, he certainly helped renew the Church, seeking to transform us all into a truly joyful community of Jesus’ missionary-disciples!

Saint Paul VI: Pope of Evangelization

On World Mission Sunday in 2014, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was beatified in Rome. The choice of the occasion was significant! First, on Mission Sunday, the Church focuses on her missionary vocation and identity. And, when elected, the new pope specifically chose the name “Paul” because he saw himself preaching the Gospel to the whole world, following Saint Paul’s missionary dynamism. Secondly, the date marked the close of a special Synod of Bishops on the family; it was Paul VI who established the synod of bishops in 1965 to assist the Church in both reading and interpreting the signs of the times. The canonization of Paul VI was celebrated on October 14, 2018 at the close of the Synod of Bishops that was devoted to the youth and vocations. Indeed, the parallels between the events of 2014 and 2018 are quite striking!

Missionary Initiatives.

Aside from expressing his “core identity” with the chosen name “Paul,” Giovanni Montini accomplished much to bring the Gospel message to contemporary humanity. Sharing John XXIII’s vision of Church renewal, Paul successfully concluded Vatican II and systematically implemented its missionary vision. In addition, Paul VI presented his “dialogical” vision of the Church in his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964). He established the Vatican office, now known as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, on Pentecost Sunday 1964.

Paul, the missionary pope, initiated papal travels, literally covering the globe. His most extensive missionary journey in November-December 1970 brought him to Asia with visits to eight countries. While in Manila he met with 180 Asian bishops, a pivotal event in the foundation of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. In addition, Paul VI vigorously promoted the growth of authentic, inculturated, local churches.

Evangelii Nuntiandi

Pope Paul will always be remembered for his 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN), Evangelization in the Modern World. This was the first papal document to flow from a synod (the 1974 world synod focused on the theme of evangelization). This beautiful document, as fresh today as when it was written, asserts that: (1) evangelization is the vocation proper to the Church; (2) the Church’s mission continues the mission of Jesus; (3) evangelization is a multi-faceted reality; and, (4) evangelization includes a commitment to full human development and social justice.

Paul VI asserted: “We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church…..Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize” (EN 14). “For the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all strata of humanity” (EN 18). EN became the magna carta for Catholic evangelization in the last quarter of the second millennium of Christianity. Without doubt, EN is one of the most important ecclesial documents of the post-Vatican II era. EN boldly addresses the topic of evangelization in the modern world.

Pope Francis’ Affirmation

Evangelii Nuntiandi is the most quoted document in Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium; it is quoted on thirteen different occasions. One finds that Pope Francis, beginning early in his pontificate, regularly quotes and praises EN. In 2013 Francis said that EN includes words that “are as timely as if they had been written yesterday” (May 17); he called EN “a very full text that has lost nothing of its timeliness” (June 13). As Francis described evangelization, he asserted that EN was “that basic point of reference which remains relevant” (July 27). The pope went even so far (June 22) as to describe EN as “to my mind the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day.”

Pope Francis reiterated his great admiration for Paul VI and EN on June 16, 2014 when he opened the pastoral convention for the Diocese of Rome. In reference to EN, Francis stated: “Still to this day it is the most important post-Conciliar pastoral document, which hasn’t been surpassed. We should always go back to it.” Undoubtedly, EN is the fertile soil from which Francis drew much as he authored his Evangelii Gaudium (as well as using other material from Pope Paul VI). Francis appreciates Paul VI, because he affirms that the testimony of Paul VI “feeds us the flame of love for Christ, love for the Church, and gives us the momentum to announce the Gospel to the people of today, with mercy, patience, courage, and joy” (June 22).

Parallel Insights

Popes Paul VI and Francis share several common perspectives. “Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing” (EN 80); “let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization” (EG 83). All Christians are challenged to be “evangelized evangelizers” (cf. EN 15) who are truly “missionary disciples” (EG 120); their spirituality must reflect “the fervor of the saints” (EN 80) and emerge from “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (EG 3). Popes Paul and Francis are truly “kindred spirits”—aflame with the fire of evangelization. We try to catch the same “Gospel Fire”!

Saint John Paul II: Global Missionary Pope

The Catholic Church worldwide rejoiced as Pope John Paul II was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011 and then canonized by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014 in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. Catholic and secular media covered the events from a wide variety of perspectives, emphasizing the many and diverse contributions of this 264th pope of the Catholic Church whose pontificate extended over 26 years (1978-2005).

Startling Statistics

When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005 the Reuters News fact sheet noted some remarkable statistics regarding his pontificate. He traveled a total of 775,231 miles around the world; this is 3.24 times the distance from the earth to the moon. John Paul II read aloud, before audiences in the millions, more than 20,000 addresses. As pope he issued more than 100 major documents, including 14 encyclicals, 45 apostolic letters, 14 apostolic exhortations, and 11 apostolic constitutions. John Paul II beatified 1,338 and canonized 482 people, more than all of his predecessors in the last four centuries combined.

Undoubtedly, one of the major emphases of John Paul II was his focus on the renewal of the Church in her missionary identity and commitment. When his mission encyclical Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer: RM) was published on December 7, 1990 [25th anniversary of the mission document of Vatican II, Ad Gentes] Cardinal Daneels of Brussels wrote: “this document best exemplifies who this pope is; it is the fruit of his mission in every continent. There is nothing better to define his pontificate than to say: he is a missionary pope.”

Commitment to Missionary Evangelization

In RM (1) the pope described his missionary commitment: “From the beginning of my Pontificate I have chosen to travel to the ends of the earth in order to show this missionary concern. My direct contact with peoples who do not know Christ has convinced me even more of the urgency of missionary activity….” John Paul II echoed his explicit pastoral choice in his Message for World Mission Sunday in 1981: “My trips to Latin America, Asia and Africa have an eminently missionary purpose.” Everywhere he went John Paul II emphasized a central point: “I wish to invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment” (RM 2).

The pope was concerned that “missionary activity specifically directed ‘to the nations’ (ad gentes) appears to be waning…. For in the Church’s history, missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis on faith” (RM 2). John Paul II made the faith-mission link very explicit when he noted: “Mission is an issue of faith, an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us” (RM 11).

Saint John Paul II did everything in his power to renew mission, because he continually asserted that mission is at the heart of the Church: “the Church here on earth is missionary by her very nature” (AG 2). He was deeply convinced that “missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!” (RM 2). Pope Francis said of John Paul II: “I think of him as ‘the great missionary of the Church’,” because he was “a Man who proclaimed the Gospel everywhere.”

Missionary and Saint

The choices of the dates for the beatification (May 1, 2011) and canonization (April 27, 2014) were certainly not accidental; both are the Feast of Divine Mercy. John Paul II had a deep commitment to this devotion as it was propagated by Sister Faustina Kowalska, a fellow Pole. One can also note the intimate link with mission. Is not missionary evangelization all about proclaiming God’s abundant love, compassion, and mercy? Mission is grounded in being so filled with God’s loving mercy that one wishes to proclaim it to the world. Mission makes God’s merciful love contagious.

One might assert that for his missionary commitment and insights John Paul II “deserved” to be declared a saint! However, the canonization process is not quite that simple! Yet, the Church celebrates the life of this saint, because she has been gifted with an extraordinary apostle of Jesus Christ, who used every opportunity to spread the message and person of Jesus. We rejoice to pray: Saint John Paul II, renew our missionary hearts as members of Christ’s Church!

Living in a Remarkable Era

As Catholics today we are truly privileged to live in a fascinating time of the Church’s history. We recall that it is precisely six decades ago (1958-2018) that Saint John XXIII was elected pope (October 28, 1958). In less than 100 days after his election, he announced the Second Vatican Council on January 25, 1959, the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul. Certainly, the Council, considered by many as the most significant Church event since the Council of Trent in the 1500s, opened an age of marvelous transformation in the Church—all guided by the action of the Holy Spirit. In addition, this “Vatican II Era” has been characterized by several holy popes: Saints John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II.

How did these saints regard Vatican II? John XXIII said that he was offering “to the world the gift of a new Ecumenical Council” and prayed to the Holy Spirit: “Renew your wonders in our time, as though for a New Pentecost.” Paul VI said: “One may say that the Council leaves itself as a legacy to the Church that held it.” He asserted: “The first need of the Church is to always live Pentecost.” John Paul II noted: “The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council has been a gift of the Spirit to his Church.” He affirmed: “The Conciliar documents … have not lost their value nor their brilliance…. In the Council we have received a sure compass to guide us.”

Our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s abundant blessings, showered upon the contemporary Church through two very special gifts: Vatican II itself and the three “pope-saints” of the Council. Indeed, the Spirit has renewed the Church in our times; we have experienced a “New Pentecost”!

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