78. The New Saints and Pope Francis

April 5th, 2014

On 27th April two canonizations will take place in Rome. Two Twentieth century Popes will be proclaimed “saints” by the Catholic Church. John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli 1881-1963) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła 1920-2005) will be included in the canon, or list, of recognized saints. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church “by canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors” (828).

John XXIII and John Paul II were the two major Popes of the last century. It was John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council, the most significant event in contemporary Roman Catholic history. Then it was John Paul II that re-launched Catholicism as a global player, after decades, if not centuries, of prevailing self-defensiveness. The fact that the Church is canonizing the two together on the same day communicates a clear message concerning the present Pope. In a sense Francis wants to be identified with the “pastoral” afflatus of John XXIII while at the same time following the dynamism of John Paul II.

The Pastor Pope

Perhaps the most defining mark of John XXIII was the “pastoral” tone of his pontificate. Gentle in spirit, meek in manners, approachable by the people, Roncalli was the first modern Pope to not be perceived as a king but instead as a pastor. His language was simple and his human frame was humble. By no surprise, his main achievement, i.e. Vatican II, was meant to be a “pastoral” council. John XXIII did not want a rigidly “doctrinal” church that would judge the mistakes of the world but a loving “mother” who would offer protection and understanding for all.

Francis too is perceived as a “pastoral” Pope. Unlike his predecessor, the theologian Ratzinger, Francis continues to insist on the need for a change of attitude, leaving the doctrinal outlook of the Church in the background of what he says. His main message is centered around his pastoral sensitivity. Like John XXIII, Francis wants to embrace the world as it is. He does not want to change any doctrine, but wishes to draw nearer to the world. It is clear that John XXIII’s shadow is behind Francis’ way of interpreting his pontificate.

“To” and “From” the Ends of the Earth

John Paul II, however, is a more complex figure. In his long pontificate, this Pope travelled to the ends of the earth to take a strong Catholic identity and his energetic leadership to a polarized world (East/West and North/South). From the center of Catholicism, John Paul II went to the geographical peripheries to encourage Catholic renewal everywhere. Now, with the Argentinian Francis, the Pope who comes from the ends of the world, the Church travels back to Rome to bring the enthusiasm, the energy, and the concerns of the peripheries. Francis is reversing John Paul II’s journey. The direction of the movement is different (from periphery to center) but the energy that he is investing is similar. John Paul II re-ignited the Roman catholicity inside out, Francis is stirring the Catholic “mission” outside in.  The common thread between the two is that something is moving in a significant way.

The canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II will focus on two past Popes but they will also speak of the present Pope. The pastoral catholicity of the former and the shaking and shaping ability of the latter are marks of Pope Francis. In some important respects Francis is reflected in both of these predecessors and this event will be a further opportunity to stress this identification.

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