On April 27 Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors, Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope John Paul II, a truly unique event without precedent in the Catholic Church. There are many still living whose lives were touched directly by both popes, but far more experienced the papacy of Blessed Pope John Paul II which lasted from 1978 until 2005, the second longest in history. The number is rapidly diminishing of those who experienced the papacy of Blessed Pope John XXII that lasted from 1958 to 1963.
Both men opened the Church in different ways bringing to an end the self-imposed isolation following the Reformation and the Council of Trent. Blessed Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimages to 129 countries certainly echoed Blessed Pope John’s famous declaration that, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” Blessed Pope John Paul traveled close to one million miles taking the Church to the people where they lived. Blessed Pope John envisioned a council that would read and respond to the “signs of the times” as a way of the Church to engage the world rather than retreat from it.
Each of the two men brought very different experiences to the papacy than the curial background of most popes. Blessed Pope John Paul’s ministry was one of a bishop and a priest in a Communist country, and Blessed Pope John spent 20 years as a papal delegate in countries with miniscule Catholic minorities. In each case the experience marked their papacy. John Paul’s role in the downfall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe and Blessed Pope John’s outreach to other Christians and also to non-Christians each changed the world’s perception of the papacy.
Through media coverage of his pilgrimages, the world saw the energy and approachability that John Paul exuded until his health deteriorated. He will also be particularly remembered for his dealing with bioethical issues, his support of social justice, his international moral leadership, his defense of pro-life teachings and his publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. Finally, the world was inspired by the witness of his suffering and death.
Blessed Pope John’s legacy is, of course, the Second Vatican Council which he convoked less than 90 days after his election. His open window not only let fresh air in, but, as Blessed John Paul would call for later, let the Church out and into the marketplace. Vatican II became a media event and the world used that window to see the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Blessed Pope John did not live beyond the first of the Council’s four sessions, but his vision continued to be the catalyst for the debates that produced the 16 documents approved by the Council Fathers.
Let us thank God for these two incredible, holy men.
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