Thirty years ago, a great college football team faced an awful choice. Expected to win a championship game handily, they instead found themselves playing catch-up throughout. With less than a minute to go, though, they scored and trailed by only one point. Thus their choice: play it safe and kick an extra point to tie the game and probably still win the championship, or go for two points, risking everything to win clearly. The team and its coach never hesitated; they lined up for the two point conversion but fell tragically short. The other team won, and ever since experts have mused ‘what if’ the expected winner hadn’t overreached.
On Divine Mercy Sunday, the Universal Church celebrated the canonizations of two recent popes: John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli, 1881-1963) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, 1920-2005). The Church prepared for this remarkable day with great anticipation. All sorts of Catholics offer their devotions to John and John Paul. Their legacies appear where the Church now grows fastest.
Still, similar ‘overreach’ questions have emerged. What does it mean that two popes enter the Communion of Saints on the same day? In the conventional wisdom, John XXIII and John Paul II represent two loci of the post-Vatican II Church. John XXIII, who convened the Council but then died before the Second session started, stands as the great hope of liberals or at least those who seek greater reforms in the Church. “Good Pope John” wrote passionately about socio-economic justice and peace. On the other hand, the same stereotype casts John Paul II as the great restorative hope for conservatives. Elected as a young, vibrant fifty-six year old, the Polish pope quickly restored the Church’s teaching and spiritual authority following the decade-long fallout from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.
Of course, the nay-sayers offer counter-narratives. John’s Council welcomed the very Modernist innovations condemned so vigorously by Popes Pius IX and St. Pius X. John Paul’s concern for restoring authority suppressed the Council’s reforming zeal, especially regarding women’s ordination, and ignored clear signs indicating clergy sexual abuse. How can these two popes stand, let alone enter sainthood, together? Thus in “going for 2” the dual canonization appears as overreach or, perhaps worse, a confused message about papal legacies. Well-read Catholic critic Paul Elie sees (mistakenly, I think) Francis slyly undermining Benedict’s legacy. How then would this dual canonization aid that quiet revolution? (If anything, Benedict will perhaps enjoy the canonizations more than most. After all, he worked for and with both saints!)
Investigation reveals the myopia of such concerns. For all his zeal about the Council’s aggiornomento, John XXIII conserved as much as he inaugurated. Reading John’s body of work (short, compared to John Paul II’s exhaustive writings) challenges the customary view that John’s Council turned its back on Catholic history. Roncalli clearly saw himself standing on the shoulders of giants. His early encyclicals in 1959 and 1960 teem with references to Pius X and Pius XI, especially. This makes sense; St. Pius X had ordained Roncalli to the priesthood and both men came to the papacy through Venice. Furthermore, John saw aggiornomento following Pius X’s motto: Instaurare Omnia in Christo (To Restore All Things in Christ). Likewise, John Paul II cannot be dismissed as a ham-handed reactionary. His five-year lecture series on the Theology of the Body thoroughly reconstructed the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and continues to inspire new research, especially among women theologians. His extensive writings on work and freedom contributed directly to the downfall of the Iron Curtain, starting in his own beloved Poland. John Paul II also boldly added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary, that most Catholic of prayers. Tellingly, the most frequent citations in John Paul II’s own writings? Scripture and the documents of Vatican II.
So instead of overreach, perhaps Francis chose, following John XXIII’s own example, to celebrate two of the popes who most formed his own ministry. If that’s the case, we should expect more citations from both as long as Francis remains pope. Given their heroic challenges to unreflective conventions, this cannot be bad.
From what Pope Francis has shown us thirteen months into his own ground-breaking papacy, celebrating the saintliness of these two predecessors reaffirms the Church’s catholicity—its universality and inclusiveness. Both John XXIII and John Paul II celebrated the joy and hope the Gospels give the entire human race, not solely Christians or Roman Catholics. The canonizations also remind us of God’s surprising providence. That God might call a humble Italian or an orphaned Pole, both of whom worked clandestinely against the Nazis, should alert us to God’s unexpected presence in our own lives. A glance at Pope Francis’ Twitter feed reveals the same utter reliance on God’s grace. Why play it safe?
Jeff Marlett teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.