Heavenly bliss is the ultimate goal of all humans. That leads us to the Christian concept of a Communion of Saints. Some religions honor holy persons as saints even in their lifetime. So did the early Christians. In today’s Church, however, sainthood is a posthumous title reserved for holy men and women whose fragrance of sanctity continues to sustain earthly sojourners of the Communion.
Last weekend, the Church added two popes to the official list of saints for veneration by Catholics worldwide. Way ahead of the dual canonization in the Vatican, the new saints received unprecedented media coverage. Much of it focused on their papal role as John XXIII and John Paul II. Happily, corrective action was promptly taken by Pope Francis. He graciously thanked Catholics of Bergamo, Italy, and Wadowice, Poland, for gifting the two saints to the worldwide Church.
Saint John XXIII was pope for about 5 years of his 84-year-long life. Saint John Paul II was pope for just 27 of his 82-year-long life. Much of the two saints’ contribution, even as popes, was the fruit of their Christian life and service each in his own habitat or mission. When considering their fuller life-witness, one wonders whether they should have been canonized as Saint Angelo Roncalli and Saint Karol Wojtyla. After all, their sainthood owes much to the holiness of life and witness that equipped each of them to grace the papacy as head of the worldwide Church.
For example, the ever-jolly Friar Tuck-style depiction of saint John XXIII often fails to reflect the rustic Roncalli serenity based on deep personal prayer. The “Journal of a Soul,” which puts together diaries and notes Angelo Roncalli wrote from age 14 until his last days, reveals the simple peasant spirituality that laid the foundation for his eventful papacy. “My great book is the crucifix,” he wrote as a simple priest, adding, “the solution of all difficulties is Christ.” He was fond of the private devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus practised by his great-uncle Zaverio Roncalli. “In fact, he was the first person to train me to that practice of religion from which my priestly vocation was to spring,” he wrote later as Pope John.
Even after being named papal representative in Bulgaria, he was ever conscious of the sense of Divine Presence nurtured by his peasant background. He once recalled, “God sees me: our humble grandmothers used to work this motto into their samplers of rustic embroidery; it still hangs on the old walls of our houses and it contains a stern reminder which serves to give a character of decency to all our behaviour.”
Archbishop Roncalli’s diplomatic sojourn in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and France exposed him to a wide spectrum of world realities. It served as a providential pastoral preparation for his future task as pope. His political and ecumenical encounters in those countries helped set the agenda for his epochal pontificate. Such moves also set priorities for the charismatic Saint John Paul II’s long pontificate. Those who try to brand the two pontificates using human categories as progressive versus conservative fail to discern the hand of God as evidenced by the bridging roles of the later Pauline and Franciscan pontificates.
Polish Bishop Karol Wojtyla was ordained just one month before Pope John XXIII was elected in October 1958. Enthused by the new pope’s call for an Ecumenical Council, the new Polish bishop was one the first to respond to the pre-conciliar questionnaire sent to the world’s 2,594 bishops. After the death of Pope John, Cardinal Wojtyla supported Pope Paul VI further pursue the policy of Ostopolitik to reach out to Communist countries including the offer of diplomatic relations to Warsaw.
The Johnine-Pauline policy of detante paved the way for the role attributed to Pope John Paul II for the collapse of communism. As much as the socio-political struggle in Poland catalysed his later social teaching, it also tended to restrict his world view. Some Church watchers say that his Polish background made him politically progressive while being doctrinally conservative. Although his Christian humanism as a young poet and playwright had been forward looking, his Polish spirituality had difficulty in coping with post-Christian secularism and resisting curial moves to contain ecumenism and inculturation. In 1995, papal biographer Tad Szulc wrote that Pope John Paul II was “the unchanged spiritual child of wartime Krakow.”
When considered in the context of such ecclesial realities, the sainting of two recent popes has a catechetical value. Whatever critics may have to say about fast-tracking the canonizations, the proximity of their lives in recent history, encourages us to learn to honor the holiness of saints despite their human limitations. Even saints have been human, just like the rest of the pilgrim Church. After all, the flawed experiences of the past would help saints better understand us, just as the Church is expected to.
Hector Welgampola has served more than 50 years in Catholic media as editor of the two Colombo-based Catholic weeklies in Sri Lanka, the English-language Messenger and Sinhalese-language Gnanartha Pradeepaya (lamp of wisdom).
He then served as executive editor of UCA News from 1987 until his retirement in 2001. He also compiled the recently published Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.