The Word Among Us

November 2013 Issue

Saints of the People

The magnetic holiness of John XXIII and John Paul II.

Saints of the People: The magnetic holiness of John XXIII and John Paul II.

Santo subito! Santo subito!

So rang the cry in Rome on April 2, 2005. The call—“Sainthood now!”—came from the thousands of people who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square to keep vigil as Pope John Paul II lay dying. As far as these well-wishers were concerned, Karol Wojtyla was already a saint. Their cry was simply a request for the Vatican to make it official and canonize him as soon as possible.

Well, their dream has finally come true—along with the dream of the thousands of other people who have made a similar request for “Good Pope John,” John XXIII, who initiated the Second Vatican Council. Last July, Pope Francis announced the canonization of both of these men. These two popes—both wildly popular among the people and both universally recognized for their holiness—will be canonized together in a ceremony that is sure to draw millions of people to Rome.

Bending the Rules. But did you know that, technically, neither of these men should be canonized—at least not yet? A mere six weeks after John Paul II’s death, his successor, Benedict XVI, announced that he was waiving the five-year waiting period called for by canon law. Hearing the crowds at John Paul’s death—and even more so at his funeral—Benedict XVI decided that the waiting period was unnecessary.

In the case of John XXIII, Pope Francis decided to dispense with the second miracle that is normally required for a person’s canonization. Announcing the Holy Father’s decision regarding John XXIII, his spokesman said, “He is loved by Catholics, we are in the fiftieth anniversary of the council, and . . . no one doubts his virtues.”

By bending the rules as they did, both Benedict and Francis revealed a great sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as he spoke through the combined voices of everyday Catholics. So many people were touched by the heroic faith of John and John Paul. So many were brought to conversion because of their witness and their teachings. So many have venerated their memories and have attempted to model their lives after them. How could they not be declared saints?

Holiness Is Attractive. None of this should surprise us. In fact, the Church went almost one thousand years without a formal canonization process. People were venerated as saints because believers recognized their holiness and instinctively turned to them for help and guidance. This is why we call people like Augustine, Irenaeus, Helena, and Hildegard saints. It’s why martyrs like Ignatius, Polycarp, Perpetua, and Felicity are honored all over the world. They stand out as role models who call us to deeper holiness. They also stand out as friends whose affection we can feel across the centuries.

The Scriptures are filled with examples of magnetic holiness as well. For example, St. Luke tells us more than once how attractive the first Christians were. Immediately after his description of Pentecost, he tells us that these believers spent their time “praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” And later, he writes, “Great numbers of men and women were added to them” (Acts 2:47; 5:14).

We even read how people felt drawn to Peter and Paul individually (Acts 5:15-16; 19:11-12; 20:7-8). They were eager to hear these apostles preach. They sensed how close to the Lord they were, and so they came hoping for miraculous healings and deliverance from evil spirits. People just couldn’t keep away from them!

Then, of course, there was Jesus himself. He couldn’t go anywhere without drawing people to his side. Crowds would jostle him (Mark 5:30-31). Throngs would cheer for him (Matthew 21:8-9). Thousands would sit for hours just to hear him or be in his presence (15:29-32). Think about the “sinful woman” who broke every social convention just to offer Jesus a token of love and gratitude (Luke 7:36-38). Or think about Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree just to get a glimpse of him (19:2-4).

All these stories tell us that holiness is attractive. It’s evident. People can sense it, and it moves them. It softens their hearts. It helps them choose the path of mercy and generosity. And most important, it draws them closer to the Lord. This is what all saints—including Saints John XXIII and John Paul II—do.

Witnesses to Holiness. Of course, not everyone manifests holiness in the same way. For John XXIII, the hallmarks were simplicity and humility. He was not given to long theological discourses or deep philosophical reflection. Rather, he simply said what he felt God was asking him to say—and he said it in a way that spoke to the hearts of everyday people. For instance, in his homily at the opening of Vatican II, John spoke warmly of his hopes for the council, that “by bringing herself up-to-date where required . . . the Church will make men, families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.”

This was Pope John’s goal for all that he did in serving the Church. He knew that if we could lift our hearts and minds to heaven, we would find a merciful, loving Father eager to pour grace upon us. He knew, too, that if we would choose the “medicine of mercy” over that of “severity” in our dealings with people who disagreed with us, we would gain a better hearing. He wanted us to become saints, too, people whose holiness— whose gentleness, love, mercy, and compassion—would draw people to the Lord.

For John Paul II, the hallmarks of holiness were exuberant energy and unflinching determination. A child of World War II and Communist occupation, John Paul learned holiness in a hostile environment, where his every step was watched, and the threat of imprisonment and death was never far away. Attending an underground seminary and being ordained a priest in the midst of atheistic, Soviet-controlled Poland, John Paul lived a life of dramatic heroism from a young age.

Returning to Poland after his election as pope, John Paul demonstrated the kind of holiness that stands up to oppression and falsehood. In his homily at Victory Square in Warsaw, in the full hearing of the Communist officials who were trying to suppress the Church, John Paul fearlessly proclaimed the gospel. “Man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ,” he said. “He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is. . . . He cannot understand any of this without Christ.”

In a country trying to wipe out all references to God, Jesus, or the Church, here was a son of Poland speaking out against the state-sponsored atheism that was being forced on his people. And his words became the spark that ignited the Solidarity movement, which eventually led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

No matter where they went, these two popes drew huge crowds of people. Their words, whether in homilies, encyclicals, or off-the-cuff remarks, resonated in people’s hearts. Their gestures of openness, welcome, and blessing were all perceived as expressions of big hearts that were filled with the love of the Lord. It wasn’t that people wanted to be with them in the same way that we might want to be with a famous actor or a rock star. People were drawn to them because they knew these men could draw them to Christ.

A Lasting Legacy. Both men took the world by storm: John XXIII by his humility and openhearted approach to the Church; John Paul II by his courage, his boundless energy, and his zeal. One was a pastor at heart, and the other a teacher. One called a council that opened the Church to the modern world, while the other became a traveling pope who preached Christ in every corner of the world.

Still, no matter how different they were from one another, both men demonstrated a holiness and a love for Jesus that touched millions of hearts. They poured themselves out for the Lord and his Church. And they continue to do so today in heaven—interceding for us and cheering us on. Through the witness of their lives, the legacy of their deeds, and the truths of their writings, they show us what holiness really looks like. And not only that, they tell us that we can become just as attractive as they were. Sainthood is not just for popes; it’s for everyone who loves the Lord and honors his people.