The Paths John XXIII and John Paul II Took Toward Sainthood

Image: The Paths John XXIII and John Paul II Took Toward Sainthood A poster showing Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, left, and Pope John XXIII is seen on Borgo Pio street near the Vatican in St. Peter's square on April 23.

Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014 09:38 AM

By Edward Pentin

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What personal qualities make Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints?

The two 20th-century popes, who will be canonized in Rome on Sunday, lived in such close profound communion with Jesus that they developed auras of holiness.

Such are the testimonies not only of those who knew the two men well, but also of two church officials who have overseen their journeys toward canonization.

Speaking to reporters at the Vatican on Tuesday, the Rev. Giovangiuseppe Califano and Monsignor Slawomir Oder, "postulators" for the respective causes of John XXIII and John Paul II, explained how these two pontiffs manifested Christian qualities to such an extent that they will now be "elevated to the altars" as prime examples of saintliness.

People who knew Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli – later "Good Pope" John XXIII – "immediately recognized" the Pope’s "aura of holiness," Califano said, stressing that his reputation for sanctity derived from his "spiritual way of living."

From his earliest days in the seminary, Roncalli committed himself to becoming a saint, he said. According to his diaries, Roncalli set about achieving it through unity with Jesus, praying the rosary and always keeping an eye on his actions.

At 21, he even said: "God, I truly desire that I be a saint, and therefore I should be a saint."

Later, as pope, he once remarked: "They call me the Holy Father. I should be so: Holy."

But Califano said he also achieved such a high level of sanctity through simple humility, obedience to his superiors, and his way of being. "We can recall the words of St. Francis of Assisi: 'God is everything, and I am nothing, and this is enough for me.'"

"This is what consoled the heart of John XXIII," the postulator said, recalling the late pope’s dependence on the providence of God after growing up poor.

"He entrusted himself completely to the heart of God," the Italian priest said. "We know that, and we see it through his decisions: how he always abandoned himself to his heart."

Editor’s Note: Do You Approve of Pope Francis? Vote Now in Urgent Poll

John XXIII had "humility, generosity and joy" – qualities seen through his actions, from giving gifts to sick children and reaching out to those on margins of society, to opening the doors of the church and convening the Second Vatican Council, which "updated" the church to better engage with the modern world. He was both a "shepherd and a father," or even synonymous with the word "love," as his successor, Paul VI, once remarked.

Similarly, John Paul II appeared destined for sainthood from his earliest days. Oder recalled how when he was walking down the corridors of his university in Poland, his fellow students used to call out: "Hey, there’s a future saint!"

"What formed John Paul II? Prayer, an incredible capacity for self-reflection, but first and foremost a life of suffering," Oder said, reminding that Karol Wojtyla had known tragic loss from an early age.

His mother, Emilia, died in childbirth when Wojtyla was 8. His elder sister Olga had died before his birth, and his brother Edmund, to whom he was close, died when the future pope was in his teens. His father passed away soon after. "At 20, I had already lost all the people I loved," he once said.

"At a very young age, he had to face the incredible suffering of being completely alone, and an acute sense of life lived as a mystery," Oder said. "But it was a mystery which this young man decided to face. He did not run away from it. It’s part of a theatrical drama of life on which he reflected. He saw that the life of a man receives its qualitative weight from charity, and this was his program of life."

Oder said that Wojtyla’s simple faith and deep prayer life was the "foundation to his life," followed by the courage in which he faced up to the challenges of existence.

Aside from these key aspects of his spirituality, he also had a natural desire to be in contact with people and to be close to them. "This wasn’t a thing he came up with when he became pope," Oder said. "We can see it when he was a priest, bishop, and later cardinal. We know he desired to be deeply connected to people and their life of faith. This nurtured who he was."

His "profound mysticism," the Polish priest continued, derived from prayer and the Eucharist – the consecrated bread that Catholics believe to be the real presence of Christ.
This enabled him to "feel with the heart of the people, which is to feel with the heart of the church," Oder said. "And the goal of this is to evangelize, to bring the good news [of Christ’s resurrection] to these people, which will ultimately bring them to holiness. This is the summary of his life," he said.

While John Paul II exhibited great strength and tenacity, he also had great devotion to the mercy of God. He will be canonized on "Divine Mercy Sunday" – a feast day he himself instituted. Having faced down both communism and fascism, Wojtyla believed the answer to such injustices could always be found in the divine mercy of God, "because in that, there was an equality that all could recognize," Oder said.

He also had a "profound sense of indebtedness," seeing all his life as a gift, especially the suffering and love of others. "This profound sense of gift is the key to understanding him," Oder said. "To be in debt for the love that you have received."

Neither pope was perfect, of course. John XXIII has been criticized for imprudence; John Paul II for laxity in governing (a flaw he himself admitted) and occasional poor judgment. But many inside and outside the Catholic Church have little doubt that when it comes to outstanding personal holiness – a life lived in close communion with God – both men passed with flying colors.

Editor’s Note: Do You Approve of Pope Francis? Vote Now in Urgent Poll

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