Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Saint John XXIII

It was announced last week that final approval has been given to the canonization cause of Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), and that we can expect to celebrate Pope John's canonization sometime before the end of this year (along with that of one of his more recent successors Blessed Pope John Paul II). 

The pace of Pope John's cause may perhaps seem somewhat slow in comparison with that of John Paul II and some other modern-era celebrity superstars like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, but it is they who are the exceptions. In fact, in comparison with most causes, 50 years may seem a rather short interval between death and canonization. 

Even more surprising than the relatively rapid pace of John's cause, however, is the fact that the Holy Father has dispensed with the requirement for a further post-beatification miracle in John's case. Even that, however, is not completely unprecedented even in this modern era. If I recall correctly, the first native-born US saint, Elizabeth Seton (1774-1821) was canonized in 1975 with only three miracles to her credit - two for her beatification, but only one for her canonization (at a time when two were still routinely required). 

Miracles serve as a kind of external validation for the widespread popular devotion and reputation for heroic sanctity that cause a person's cause to advance in the first place. Through the recognition of a miracle the Church seeks external evidence that her judgment of a person's sanctity is correct. It is a good reminder that it is God who makes saints not we! And, while it is tempting, especially in the case of a pope, to focus on how he acted on the world stage and left a legacy of historical significance, the confirmation by miracle of a saint's intercession also serves to remind us that sanctity is primarily about the transforming power of God's grace at work in someone more than it is about noteworthy accomplishments during one's lifetime.

That said, I am very happy that John XXIII is set to be canonized. I am old enough to remember his reign on the papal throne and to have read his Journal of a Soul shortly after its publication after his death. His reputation for holiness has remained alive in the Church, in spite of the turbulent times and tragic divisions in the Church which began in the years following his death.

Unlike his more aristocratic predecessors, John was of humble peasant background. Having entered seminary at an early age, however, he rose rapidly in the Church's ranks, beginning his priestly career as a Bishop's secretary. A Northern Italian and a keen student of history, which he called "the greatest of teachers," he saw in the great 16th-century reforming Council of Trent and  in its implementation by the likes of St. Charles Borromeo (whose heart he went to venerate in preparation for the Second VaticanCouncil) an example to be imitated in response to the challenges facing the global Church of the 20th century. He was a man of very traditional popular piety and pastoral sensitivity, who derived spiritual sustenance from traditional devotional classics like The Imitation of Christ and from the traditional liturgy he inherited and celebrated devoutly every day. He was open to learning from experience - such as his military service in the Royal Italian army as a seminarian conscript and again during World War I, and his diplomatic service among Eastern Orthodox Christians and non-Christians in Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey and among modern secularists in post-World War II France. He enjoyed people and preferred community to solitude (even ending the tradition of popes eating alone). And, in a way that was obviously both very Italian  and very Christ-like, he showed how loved the world he was a part of and how he sought its salvation.

He seemed to love and genuinely enjoy the Baroque grandeur and pomp surrounding the papacy and had no trouble deriving suitable human and spiritual lessons from it. For example, when being carried on the sedia gestatoria for the first time in 1958, he recalled being a child carried on his father’s shoulders and connected that universal human experience with his spiritual mission: “More than seventy years ago I was carried on the shoulders of my father at Ponte San Pietro. The secret of everything is to let oneself be carried by God, and so to carry him to others.”

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