As you read this, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, 66 Milwaukee pilgrims and I are in Rome for the canonization Mass this Sunday. What an extraordinary event in the life of the church! Two of the most popular popes of the last 500 years, within living memory of many people, will be raised to the altars by Pope Francis with the hoped-for presence of Pope Emeritus Benedict. This double papal canonization is unprecedented in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church.
Elected after the long (1939-1958) pontificate of Pius XII, Pope John XXIII was viewed by many as an interim leader who probably wouldn’t do much. Wrong! Within months of his election, on Jan. 25, 1959 to be exact, he announced his vision for a new ecumenical council on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (where Cardinal James M. Harvey serves as archpriest. We will have Mass and a tour there. It is where St. Paul is buried.)
John envisioned a renewal of the church, a summoning of the vast forces and energies of global Catholicism to engage and evangelize the modern world. With joy and hope, John XXIII captured the imagination of the globe.
Personally, John was a man of remarkable warmth, compassion, humor and faith. He was the first pope to leave the Vatican since Pius IX had made himself a “prisoner” there in protest of the seizure of the Papal States during the creation of the state of Italy in the 19th century. John took train rides to Assisi and Loreto, ventured out into the streets of Rome, visiting hospitals and prisons.
Tragically, Pope John died of stomach cancer June 3, 1963, having presided over the first session of the Second Vatican Council only the previous October. His successor, Paul VI, would have the arduous task of finishing the council and overseeing its challenging implementation.
Although Pope John served as pope for less than five years, the forces he set into motion would not be stopped by his death. The contemporary face and mission of the church in many ways reflect Pope John’s faith, joy and vision.
Pope John Paul II’s election on Oct. 16, 1978 was a complete surprise to the world. Catapulted into the papacy after the month-long reign of Pope John Paul I, Karol Wojtyla was an unknown to the West. The first non-Italian in hundreds of years, the first Pole, the first pope who loved to hike, swim, ski and play soccer, a poet, a philosopher, an actor, Pope John Paul II broke precedent in many ways.
In his long pontificate – more than 26 years, Pope John Paul II canonized hundreds of saints, traveled to almost every place on the planet, saw and was seen by more people than anyone in history, inaugurated the amazingly successful World Youth Days, wrote encyclicals on a plethora of Catholic subjects, visited synagogues and mosques, oversaw the revision of canon law, went to almost every parish in the Diocese of Rome and was instrumental in the collapse of Soviet communism. He brought the church and the papacy to the world, becoming the moral and religious voice and conscience for millions.
Pope John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI finished it and began its implementation, and Pope John Paul II continued sketching out through word and deed what a truly global and contemporary Catholicism looked like.
He saw Africa, Latin America and Asia as sacred cultures where the church was rapidly growing and, in many cases, re-evangelizing the West. While deeply traditional in many ways, Pope John Paul II was a master in the usage of media, images and immense events to proclaim the timeless truth of the Gospel through new and exciting methods.
The whole energy and force percolating everywhere within the grassroots of Catholicism concerning the new evangelization is truly a long germinating fruit of both pontificates we are celebrating this week.
Popes John XXIII and John Paul II exercised a winning charisma and a profound faith to bring the Gospel to the world, to address the vast areas of culture, politics, economics, work and poverty, to animate a church that is always tempted to fall into complacency, fear, withdrawal and bureaucracy, to offer a fresh vision of human rights, the dignity of the person and the potential that lies within all of us when we give our hearts to God.
Please know of our prayers for you and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, as we will be blessed to call on the powerful intercession of these two new saints to guide our lives in the saving ways of Jesus Christ.
Now that Lent is over and I am drinking coffee again, I will have a cappuccino in your honor. Please hold us in prayer as well, as we join the millions of pilgrims in Rome from all over the world. It will truly be an adventure.