What John XXIII and John Paul II Can Teach Us
by Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP
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:
What, according to St. John XXIII, would be the foundation of this “new order of human relations”? It was the realization that:
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:
As for St. John XXIII, so for St. John Paul II, the solicitude of the Church must be for the sake of each person:
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!