President's Corner

What John XXIII and John Paul II Can Teach Us

by Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

Canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II The 20th century was the age in which the competing ideologies that had grown up in Europe and in the developed world turned violent. The colonialism and nationalism that set the stage for World War I and the subsequent rise and defeat of fascism in World War II gave way to the “cold war” struggle between communism and capitalism. It was, perhaps, this struggle between East and West that assured the triumph of ideology.   
 
We were encouraged to imagine all social life as a contest between antithetical doctrines, such as communism and capitalism, to the degree that it now seems necessary to commit ourselves to some or other ideology in order to have any social identity. Modern life has issued forth into an explosion of “isms” whether in economics (socialism, capitalism, distributism, communitarianism), philosophy (materialism, skepticism, idealism, existentialism), politics (liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, feminism, egalitarianism) or religion (atheism, agnosticism, secularism, Protestantism, Catholicism) right down to the food that we eat (vegetarianism).  
 
As so often in the past, God’s response to our folly is to raise up saints. So it is that on the 28th of October, 1958 Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, was elected to the Chair of Peter and took the name John. Twenty years later, on 16 October, 1978 Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, was elected Supreme Pontiff and took the name John Paul. On Sunday both will be canonized at the same Mass, an event that is unique in the Church’s history. Their canonization together is deeply appropriate in that they taught us in word and gesture how we can respond in love to the age of ideology.

St. John XXIII was born of peasant stock and immediately became nonno (grandfather) to the world – wise, attentive, fatherly – but also direct, genuine, playful. Anecdotes about him abounded. Aware that his predecessor weighed considerably less than he did, immediately before being seated on the sedia gestia he asked how much the ushers were paid whose task it would be to carry him. Upon being told he gave the command, “Double it!” Having been asked how many work at the Vatican he responded, “About half of them.” Responding to the sister responsible for the hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome who, flustered at meeting him, introduced herself as “the Superior of the Holy Spirit” he congratulated her and said that he was merely the Vicar of Jesus Christ.

He gestured and taught a profound confidence in Christ and a deep attentiveness to the circumstances of ordinary people. He was well aware of ways in which the modern world would have to be challenged but refused to disparage it:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse….  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. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God's superior and inscrutable designs (Opening Address of Vatican Council II).
 
What, according to St. John XXIII, would be the foundation of this “new order of human relations”? It was the realization that:
 
“Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. … When, furthermore, we consider man's personal dignity from the standpoint of divine revelation, inevitably our estimate of it is incomparably increased. Men have been ransomed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Grace has made them sons and friends of God, and heirs to eternal glory (Pacem in Terris, 9, 10, emphasis added).
 
St. John XXIII directed us not to ideologies, or world-views, or political systems, or philosophical principles - but to each person. Sixteen years later, in his first encyclical letter, St. John Paul II wonderfully expanded and amplified this one, fundamental principle:
 
The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth (Redemptor Hominis, 13, emphasis added).
  
As for St. John XXIII, so for St. John Paul II, the solicitude of the Church must be for the sake of each person:
 
The object of her care is man in his unique unrepeatable human reality, which keeps intact the image and likeness of God himself. The Council points out this very fact when, speaking of that likeness, it recalls that "man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself" (GS 24). Man as "willed" by God, as "chosen" by him from eternity and called, destined for grace and glory-this is "each" man, "the most concrete" man, "the most real"; this is man in all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ, the mystery in which each one of the four thousand million human beings living on our planet has become a sharer from the moment he is conceived beneath the heart of his mother (ibid.).
 
Both saints together taught us that we will not evangelize our modern world by condemning it or disparaging it or by engaging it politically. Instead, we will touch the hearts and minds of our contemporaries by revealing to them their identity and profound dignity as persons in the “unique and unrepeatable human reality” that each of them manifests in all of the concreteness of his or her life as “friend of God and heir to eternal glory.”
 
If we would doubt for a single moment the effectiveness of this approach then we need only remember that, more than any other person, St. John Paul was responsible for inspiring the confidence and hope in the peoples of Eastern Europe that led to the “bloodless revolution” in which they overthrew the communist dictatorships that had held them captive.  
 
The purpose of our study here at DSPT is, in the words of St. John Paul II, to focus upon and to proclaim “the truth of the person” as reason discloses it and Christ reveals it.  Heaven has granted us two more wonderful patrons in this work of ours and I pray that we may help to bring to completion the good work that they have begun.

Help us continue the legacy of John XXIII and John Paul II - donate to Saints John Paul II and John XXIII Scholarship Fund!