2 Popes in Heaven

March 11 2014 | by

MARK YOUR calendar for April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday; on that date Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict will join in the unprecedented canonisation of two popes: John XXIII and John Paul II. The choice of Divine Mercy Sunday was not a complete surprise. Since the beginning of his pontificate in March last year, Pope Francis has emphasized God’s mercy and readiness to forgive those who recognize their need for pardon. Francis told reporters on the flight back from Brazil at the conclusion of the 2013 World Youth Day, that Pope John Paul’s promotion of Divine Mercy Sunday showed his intuition that a new ‘age of mercy’ was needed in the Church and the world.

Asked on the plane to describe the two popes who are about to become saints, Francis said that Blessed Pope John was “a bit of the ‘country priest,’ a minister who loves each of the faithful and knows how to care for them; he did this as a bishop and as a nuncio.” He was holy, patient, had a good sense of humour and, especially by calling the Second Vatican Council, was a man of courage who let himself be guided by the Lord.

As for Blessed Pope John Paul, Francis told the reporters on the plane, “I think of him as the great missionary of the Church,” because he was “a man who proclaimed the Gospel everywhere.”

Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing the miracle needed for John Paul’s canonisation last July, and on the same day the Vatican announced that the Pope had agreed with members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that the canonisation of Blessed John should go forward even without a second miracle attributed to his intercession. Except in the case of martyrdom, Vatican rules require one miracle for a candidate’s beatification and a second for his or her canonisation as confirmation that the candidate really is in heaven with God. However, the pope may set aside the rule.  

John: a mystic pope


The man who would become ‘Good Pope John’ was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (November 25, 1881) at a tiny village in the province of Bergamo, Italy. His parents were tenant farmers.

As a child, Roncalli lived in an atmosphere of faith, instilling in him a deep and profound sense of spirituality. In the household where he lived with his large, extended family, the faith was practiced and lived out daily. They attended Mass each morning and recited prayers each evening after dinner. This was vital spiritual formation for young Roncalli. In 1893, when he was 12, Roncalli took an entrance exam in which he placed third, and this allowed him entry into a ‘seminary’, a Catholic school which gave him a high school education.

By the time he was a young teenager, Roncalli’s mind was entirely focused on the spiritual life. In fact, in his 14th year he began to keep a journal, maintaining it for the rest of his life. Published as Journal of a Soul, it is one of the finest modern spiritual autobiographies ever published. His first entry begins with a listing of spiritual practices he wanted to engage in. His first priority was to “choose a spiritual director from among the most exemplary, prudent and learned, in whom you may have full trust... and complete confidence.” In the journal he describes what he wanted to do daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. Anyone seeking to evolve spiritually would do well to follow young Roncalli’s blueprint. Some examples from his journal include:

– Daily: devote at least a quarter of an hour to prayer upon waking up; devote a quarter hour to spiritual reading; before dinner make an examination concerning ways to rid yourself of vices or failings, replacing them with virtues; read carefully and thoughtfully a whole chapter from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

– Weekly: confession; fast Friday and Saturday; on those days devote an extra quarter of hour to prayer or spiritual reading, if possible, in the quiet of some church; meet with the spiritual director for accountability.

– Monthly: ask one of the ‘most exemplary and zealous’ spiritual friend to observe your behaviour and candidly but charitably identify any faults; confer with the spiritual director about faults identified and the best way to correct them.

– Yearly: Go on retreat to do the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola; before going on a yearly vacation, consult with the spiritual director for suggestions to use the time for spiritual profit.


Unsought for promotion


Continuing his theological education, Roncalli was ordained as a priest in August 1904, and assigned as secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo. Following World War I Pope Pius XI established Vatican diplomatic relations with Bulgaria, asking Roncalli to be his representative (apostolic delegate) to Bulgaria. To emphasize the importance of his appointment, Pope Pius XI made Roncalli a bishop in 1925. All of this surprised Roncalli. In his journal he wrote, “I have not sought or desired this new ministry: the Lord has chosen me... so it will be for him to cover up my failings and supply my insufficiencies... This comforts me and gives me tranquillity and confidence.”

This diplomatic assignment was the first of several which would last three decades for Roncalli. After nine years in Bulgaria, Roncalli was appointed apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece (1935). Following the liberation of France in 1944, Roncalli was named Vatican representative to that country, and in 1953 Pope Pius XII made Roncalli a cardinal and Patriarch of Venice.

Believing that the position as Cardinal of Venice would be his final service to the Church, no one was more surprised than Rocnalli himself when he was elected pope five years later in October, 1958. Because of his age at election (76) it was assumed he would merely be a transitional or ‘caretaker’ pope. Though his reign was brief, lasting only five years, it is regarded by historians as the most important pontificate since the Middle Ages. This is due to his decision to call an ecumenical council of the Universal Church, the first since 1870 and only the twenty-first in the Church’s history.


Kindness and humility


The following two episodes convey the warmth, kindness and humility which consistently characterized Pope John XXIII, making him one of the most admired and loved popes by both Catholics and non-Catholics.

In the days immediately after being elected pope, John XXIII received a letter from Bruno, a 12-year-old boy. “My dear Pope: I am undecided. I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think?” The new pontiff replied promptly saying, “My little Bruno. If you want my opinion, learn how to be a policeman... Anybody can be a pope; the proof of this is that I have become one. If you ever should be in Rome, come to see me. I would be glad to talk all of this over with you.”

During the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, American journalist Norman Cousins acted as an emissary hand, delivering messages between John Kennedy, Nikita Krushchev and Pope John XXIII. As Cousins sat in Pope John’s study to report on his encounter with Krushchev, he recalls how the Pope, whom he had never met, went out of his way to put Cousins as ease: “We have very much to talk about,” the Pope said. “Just remember, I am an ordinary man; I have two eyes, a nose – a very large nose… You must feel completely relaxed. We will talk man to man.”

Pope John XIII died quietly on June 3, 1963. It was the Vatican press office which issued this final bulletin: “He suffers no more.” Outside the papal window thousands in St. Peter’s Square began to grieve along with millions around the world. Many times John XXIII came before groups saying, “I am your brother.” The world believed him!


The Polish Pope


In many ways, John Paul II’s biography is similar to that of John XXIII. Both popes were born into poor, yet devout Catholic families, and in both cases their election as pope came as a complete surprise, even to themselves. One distinguishing feature, though, was that John Paul’s youth, and later his career as a young priest, were spent in great hardship and tragic circumstances.

In January 1945 as World War II was ending, the German army began retreating from Poland, providing new freedoms for the people. One who benefited from the retreat was a young teenage girl named Edith Zierer, who managed to escape from a Nazi labour camp. Though she was in a desperately weakened condition, she managed to walk to a train station. There the teen spent two days huddled in a corner of the station, without food and water, when a young man approached her. He wore the long robe of a Catholic seminarian, though she mistook him for a priest. The man asked about her circumstances and the teen explained that she was hoping to be reunited with her family in Krakow. She did not know they had already perished in the holocaust.

Seeing her hunger and thirst, the seminarian disappeared, returning with a cup of hot tea, bread and cheese. Offering to help her get to Krakow, he asked her to “try and stand”. Unable, the man then carried her to the train and into a car. “He sat with me and put his cloak on me because it was freezing,” Zierer recalls. They made it to Krakow and, after parting company, Zierer quickly wrote his name in a small journal she kept: Karol Wojtyla.

Thirty-three years on that seminarian, who treated her with care and compassion, would become Pope John Paul II.


Heartbreaking youth


The man who became the most energetic, charismatic and influential pope in modern times was born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. He was the second child of Karol Wojtyla, Sr., an army sergeant, and Emilia Kaczorowska. The first two decades of Wojtyla’s life were impacted by heavy suffering. He was in third grade when his mother died. Four years later, his older brother also died. In 1941, Karol Wojtyla, Sr. died, leaving the younger Karol an orphan. Of that time period, John Paul would later observe, “At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved... I was not old enough to make my first communion when I lost my mother. My brother Edmund died from scarlet fever in a virulent epidemic at the hospital where he was starting as a doctor. After my father’s death, which occurred in February 1941, I gradually become aware of my truth path.”

That path was a vocation to the priesthood. Because of World War II and the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, it was not an easy path. Publicly he met the German demand for labourers by working in a stone quarry and a chemical plant. Privately, he enrolled in a clandestine seminary at Karkow, run secretly by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, the archbishop of Krakow.

When the war ended in 1945 Polish universities re-opened, allowing Wojtyla to resume studies in the Faculty of Theology at the Jagiellonian University. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Sapieha in Krakow on November 1, 1946. Because of his strong academic skills, Cardinal Sapieha sent him to Rome, where he earned a Doctorate in Theology in 1948. His dissertation focused on faith in the writing of St. John of the Cross.


Confronting Communism


Returning to Poland he served as priest at several parishes in Krakow and was chaplain to university students. Again, his academic talents were acknowledged when he was given leave, in 1951, to take up further studies in Philosophy. Two years later he earned a second doctorate. He became professor of Moral Theology and Social Ethics at the major seminary of Krakow and simultaneously was on the Faculty of Theology of Lublin.

Along with academic skills, Wojtyla possessed powerful pastoral talents. These were noted by Catholic authorities. On July 4, 1958, Pope Pius XII appointed him auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Six years later, Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Krakow and in 1967 elevated him to cardinal. As a leader of Polish Catholics, Wojtyla was cautious about direct confrontation with Communist authorities. It was a style which served him and his Church effectively. In his book, A Life With Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship With The Man Who Became Pope, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz writes that Karol Wojtyla “was always a pastor, never a political agitator. He restricted himself to proclaiming the truth. He followed the Gospel principle that ‘the truth will make you free,’ and so by the very fact of proclaiming the truth, he also proclaimed man’s freedom. It was others who went on to draw the practical conclusions from his principles.”


As we prepare for the canonisation of John XXIII and John Paul II, these two great servants, priests and bishops, may we learn from them to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the cross of suffering and proclaim the gospel of life to the people of our time. Instead of being poor models of harshness, rigidity and smallness of mind and heart, may we learn from them to be instruments and agents of mercy and tenderness.

Updated on October 06 2016