John XXIII and John Paul II: New Models for Holiness

Soon two modern figures will be declared saints. Both were popes, but the seeds of saintliness showed long before their elections.
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This morning's stories about Lumen Fidei, the first encyclical from Pope Francis, quickly yielded top news report to the Vatican announcement that Pope Francis will declare Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II saints. The Vatican spokesman suggests it could happen within the year.

Saints show us how to live. Making it to the papacy is less a criterion for sainthood than leading a life of holiness that others can imitate. The holiness of Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla started way before their papacies.

Angelo Roncalli, as Pope John XXIII, had vision that showed in calling the world's bishops together for the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965. Vatican bureaucrats couldn't believe the man who was elected pope when he was 77 was serious -- they figured him for a do-nothing interim leader. (Worth pondering: Pope Francis was elected at 76. What will he do?) John XXIII didn't see the Council conclude, but he still launched one of the most important modern-day events. Vatican II urged the Church to see it had a role in society, not apart from it. It prompted Catholics to move from spectators to participants in the Church. But the pope's greatness showed even earlier.

Archbishop Roncalli had represented the pope as nuncio to Istanbul and later to Paris. In Turkey he worked closely with the Muslim and Jewish communities, forging bonds that have continued to develop ever since. In Paris, he strengthened bonds with the Jewish community. As nuncio first in Istanbul, then in Paris during World War II he worked to save many Jews from extermination. If we achieve peace in our troubled world now it will be because of religious groups working together. The possibility for such began decades ago and included the work of this saint-to-be.

Blessed John XXIII came from a peasant family but had the courage of his convictions and the simple faith to see that God's love did, and his love should, extend to all, whatever their religious persuasion.

Blessed John Paul II stunned the world when the Pole became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He was a young pope by papal standards when he was elected in 1978 at age 58. He had a vision too, one which stunned Vatican aides. He wanted to spread the Gospel through media and mobility. He met resistance when he said he would travel the world. It just wasn't done, but he became the frequent-flyer pope on a Gospel tour. He visited people, especially poor people, all around the world. He traveled to Latin America, Africa, India, the Philippines, the Holy Land -- and brought his press entourage with him -- and via media, the pope highlighted poverty for the entire TV viewing world to see.

Yet his greatness also began before his election as pope. As a young man in World War II Poland, Karol Wojtyla dared to take risks -- he studied for the seminary in the underground. As an archbishop in Poland, he faced down communism. He remained its fierce opponent as pope. In war-torn Poland, he formed friendships with his Jewish friends which laid the roots for him to make the first papal visit to a synagogue.

As pope, John Paul showed people how to live. When after Mehmet Ali Agca nearly killed him in an assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square, the pope visited him in jail and forgave him. Years later, Pope John Paul showed people how to die when he let the world witness the intimate moments of his passing away. The millions at his funeral chanted "sainthood now," dismissing protocols for any waiting period.

Soon two modern figures will be declared saints. Both were popes, but the seeds of saintliness showed long before their elections.

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