On Sunday, at Saint Peter’s in Rome, Pope Francis will celebrate the much awaited canonization of two great contemporary popes – John XXIII (Pope 1958-1963) and John Paul II (Pope 1978-2005), henceforth Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.
I was only 10 when John XXIII (photo) became pope – and all of 15 when he died. Yet I can remember his pontificate well and the transforming impact it had, with consequences continuing into the present. I think, however, that one of the best ways really to get to know Saint John XXIII and appreciate his spirituality is to read his famous (and still in print) Journal of a Soul, a collection of spiritual notes and reflections written by him over the course of his life, beginning in 1895, when he was in the seminary at Bergamo in northern Italy, through 1962. “My soul is in these pages,” Pope John said to his secretary, when he gave him these journals for future publication. For the grand sweep of the events of his actively busy life and his role on the world stage, one must look elsewhere – to the various biographies already written and others which will undoubtedly come out in the future. But Journal of a Soul reveals the future pope’s inner life, the heart of the saint. It is steeped – as Saint John XXIII was all his life – in an intensely lived traditional Catholic piety, which may make reading it somewhat challenging to today’s tastes, which are so different from his, but it is well worth the effort. In his final journal entry, written mere months before his death, Saint John summarized the “great graces bestowed on a man who has a low esteem of himself but receives good inspirations and humbly and trustfully proceeds to put them into practice.” One of those graces was “To have been able to accept as simple and capable of being immediately put into effect certain ideas which were not in the least complex in themselves, indeed perfectly simple, but far-reaching in their effects and full of responsibilities for the future.” His success in doing this, he wrote, “goes to show that one must accept the good inspirations that come from the Lord, simply and confidently.”
Saint John Paul II had a much longer reign, during which he was able to exercise a very direct impact on many different areas of the Church’s life. From a geopolitical standpoint, he will always be remembered as the first non-Italian pope in centuries and the only Pope from behind the Iron Curtain. His pontificate will likewise be remembered for its effect in Eastern Europe and for the providential part it may have played in the collapse of communism. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which had so strongly stressed the ministry of bishops, the election of someone who had made his mark mainly as a diocesan bishop (and in communist Poland, no less) signified the Church’s ready response to the need to implement the Council’s teachings in the day-to-day reality of local Church life and to confront forcefully the new challenges being thrown at the Church by radically new political, social, and cultural changes of the 20th century. At the Mass at which he formally inaugurated his ministry as pope, Saint John Paul famously challenged the modern world: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.” That remains the Church’s mandate in this new 21st century, the first century of Christianity’s 3rd millennium, into which soon-to-be Saint John Paul led us and in which we must now continue.