Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Day of Four Popes

Today was an historic day at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City.

Pope Francis presided over the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Francis' predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was on hand for the occasion, thus creating an historic "Day of Four Popes."

John Paul II is the only one of the two who is familiar to many modern Catholics. John Paul has been dead less than a decade; John XXIII died more than half a century ago.

Both left their marks on the modern Catholic church. In fact, I have often heard it said that it was John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, who first made the church accessible to the masses.

The selection of John Paul as the first non–Italian pope in more than 400 years helped expand the church's reach, as have the elections of his successors, a German and an Argentine. John Paul's papacy was more than symbolic. His was the second–longest papacy in modern history, and he was one of the most widely traveled world leaders ever. He went to 129 countries during his pontificate, seeking to touch the faithful on every continent.

The movement for sainthood began almost immediately after John Paul's death in 2005.

I don't know when such a movement may have begun for John XXIII. His papacy was before my time. I vaguely remember his successor, Paul VI, but only because a lady who used to babysit my brother and me, Mrs. Strack, was Catholic and had his picture on the wall, and I remember that the first John Paul chose his names to honor his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI. After John Paul I died a month later, his successor chose the name John Paul II to honor his predecessor.

And what I know of John XXIII is almost entirely what I have heard of him from others. My mother admired him, and so did many other people I knew. Strangely enough, none of them were Catholic. We did know Catholics when I was growing up — Mrs. Strack and several others in my hometown — but I don't recall ever hearing them speak of him.

I don't know why that was so.

I've been trying to read what I can about the two newest saints. I already knew quite a bit about John Paul and already regarded him as a saintly man.

From what my mother told me, John XXIII was a lot like Pope Francis. I also get that impression from what I read by Bill Huebsch in the National Catholic Reporter.

John XXIII was an "accidental saint," Huebsch writes. "His personal gifts and weaknesses were ones that you or I might possess."

Apparently, one of his greatest strengths was his sense of humor. He had a razor–sharp mind and directed many of his wisecracks at himself.

"There are three ways to face ruin: women, gambling and farming," he wrote. "My father chose the most boring one."

Perhaps John's most memorable one–liner came when he was asked by a reporter how many people worked at the Vatican.

"About half of them," he replied.

John XXIII appears to have been a very accessible pope, just as Francis is perceived to be today. Upon meeting a young boy named Angelo, John said, "That was my name, too," which it was, and then he added, "But they made me change it."

In his lifetime, he was known as "Il Papa Buono""The Good Pope."

How appropriate that he should be canonized by Pope Francis.

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