Popes from the Same Cloth

divine-mercyThree years ago, we heard the same readings, and celebrated the same Feast of Divine Mercy, after a late-April Easter.

Three years ago, my mind turned to St. Peter’s Square in Rome, because my hero was being beatified. And my mind turns to Rome again, of course, because he is being canonized.

Actually, can we go back to the year 2000?


On the day after Ash Wednesday that year, a certain goofy, tall seminarian served Mass in the papal chapel, celebrated by a saint. I got to meet him after Mass. Two months later, he established the Feast of Divine Mercy for the universal Church. Then, in the fall, he solemnly declared Pope John XXIII to be among the blessed. Today, Pope Francis canonizes John Paul II and John XXIII together.

Shallow-minded people might see the double canonization as a kind of political gesture, with Pope Francis supposedly ‘balancing constituencies’ by canonizing one hero of the ‘liberals’ and one hero of the ‘conservatives.’

Not just shallow, but actually altogether inaccurate. Which of the two popes, John Paul II or John XXIII—which of them insisted more strongly on using Latin? John XXIII. Which of them more actively championed the cause of labor unions? John Paul II. Which insisted more strenuously that the inviolable doctrine of the ancient faith could never be altered? John XXIII. Which gave individual countries the right to determine the bodily postures used during Mass? John Paul II.

John XXIII Vatican IIThe truth is that both John XXIII and John Paul II ruled the Church as liberal-minded and creative staunch traditionalists. Both ruled as inflexible dogmatists who listened carefully to everyone else’s ideas. Both prayed on bended knees, facing the Lord, with the doors open.

For anyone who actually has lived the life of a practicing Catholic for all or part of the past 55 years, today’s double canonization seems about as political as a good cannoli. John XXIII and John Paul II do not represent ‘constituencies.’ They share the same fundamental qualities. They both had titanic faith, and they both loved us with wonderfully comforting fatherly love. They are two men cut from the same, very rare cloth–the cloth of genuinely-heroic-Roman-pontiff material.

And, together, St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II participated in the Catholic miracle of the last half-century.

For all of the arguments that have occurred among Catholics—and there have been many and will continue to be many; for all the strife and strain in the life of the Church—and there has been a great deal of strife and strain and will continue to be a great deal of it; for all the times during the past fifty years when people of all stripes declared the Catholic Church to be doomed—for all that: we actually find ourselves, in the springtime of 2014, in remarkably good shape.

jpiirosasrySt. John XXIII and St. John Paul II had a common vision: The Age of Apostles has returned. The Catholic Church needs to give the world the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The world needs the Church to be Her true self, because the world needs Jesus now more than ever.

In the springtime of 2014, I think we can be bold enough to say: Any honest and reasonable person looking at us, at the Catholic Church—for all our faults, which are many, for we are sinners; any honest, reasonable person looking at us would have to say: this is a group of people that is primarily focused on Jesus Christ. This is an institution that, for all the foibles of its members and its leaders, which are many; this institution actually is a living, breathing community of communities. And this group does its level best to accomplish its purported mission, namely to preach, worship, and try to imitate Jesus Christ.

Many parishes of the Catholic Church have inspiring priests. A lot of the parishes, like the Rocky Mount-Martinsville cluster, have lackluster, tedious priests. But Christianity continues in earnest, all over the world, either way. The Church has life. The Church has a fruitful future ahead. I think any honest, reasonable observer would have to grant this.

Then: throw in the fact that our heroic leaders, these saintly popes to be canonized on Sunday—throw in the fact that neither of these men ever had a “plan.” They never tried to orchestrate ‘institutional transformation’ according to their own pet theories. They simply abandoned themselves to the Providence of God. They trusted completely in the power of the Holy Spirit. They believed in the fundamental goodness of mankind, made in the image and likeness of the Creator.

When you take the lack of a human explanation for the fact that we are still around, still going strong—when you take that into account, the honest and reasonable observer might think:

“You know, there just might be a God. And Jesus of Nazareth just might be His Christ and only-begotten Son. And the See of Rome just might be the guarantee of unity with the original Apostles and with all the brother- and sister-Christians spread throughout world…”

To which we say, praising the Lord and thanking the saintly popes to be canonized on Sunday—we say: ‘Amen, honest and reasonable brother, sister! Come on in. You are welcome here with us. Let us love God; let us serve Christ; let us love each other; let us find our way to heaven together.”

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