Today, Divine Mercy Sunday, has the distinction of witnessing the canonization of two modern icons of holiness in the Church — St. John Paul II and Saint John XXIII. The massive celebration in St. Peter’s Square in Rome is being echoed in local churches around the world.
More than most canonizations, this one has political undertones. Speculation has been rife that Pope Francis decided to make saints of both John Paul II and John XXIII as a declaration of his fealty to two very distinct visions of the Church. On one hand is John XXIII, the father of the Second Vatican Council and a new openness to the outside world. Meanwhile, John Paul II represents a recalibration of our understanding of the Council, an understanding of Church that hues closely to doctrinal tradition and orthodoxy. By embracing both visions, it has been said that Francis is making a gesture towards unity and staking out his own path.
Whether this is true is, frankly, beside the point. The Church recognizes the sainthood of its disciples primarily because their personal holiness is of such a heroic nature that they are valuable role models for the rest of us. Both popes are giants of the Church’s modern history for well-known reasons, but this is not why they are being entered into the official canon of saints. Rather, it is because they also displayed an astounding personal holiness that was obvious to all.
Recall the cries of “Santo subito!” at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. The crowd wanted the pope declared a saint immediately. Yet they were not drawn to him because of his policies or insightful encyclicals; instead, they were attracted by a characteristic we can only call “saintliness.” They knew intuitively that John Paul II had the stuff of holiness.
In his own lifetime, John XXIII also developed a reputation for exuding love and goodwill to all he met. People were uplifted by their personal encounters with the man who became known as “Good Pope John.” He offered an example of humility, prayer and compassion for others that inspired an entire generation of Catholics.
Neither man was sin-free, of course. We are all sinners, including our popes, as Francis continues to remind us in his appeals to pray for him. But through their own spiritual discipline and prayer lives, the figures canonized by the Church demonstrate that they are a gift of God to the world.
In Catholic teaching, we all belong to the communion of saints. The stories of our “canonized” saints remind us, however, of the power of God to transform individual lives — and the ability of individuals to give themselves completely and heroically to something greater than themselves. These saints are our superheroes, or spiritual Olympians.
So today, we add two more to our litany, allowing us to say, “St. John Paul II, pray for us;” “Saint Jean XXIII, pray for us.”
Joseph Sinasac, Publishing Director