04/24/2014, 00.00
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Canonised popes as model for Francis' Church

by Franco Pisano
On several occasions, the current pope highlighted Pope John XXIII's humility and surrender to God's and John Paul II's consistency, courage and missionary strength as examples of how the Catholic world ought to be.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Canonising "them both together will be, I believe, a message for the Church: these two were wonderful, both of them," said Pope Francis on 29 July last year, on the plane that took him back to Rome after World Youth Day. His words illustrate in fact why he decided to canonise John XXIII and John Paul II on the same day, 27 April.

Pope Francis's decision to emphasise to the whole Church the example of two "wonderful" popes, who experienced holiness, is not only the natural conclusion of the canonical process started well before he began his pontificate but is also the expression of a "relationship" with the two popes that Francis has himself reiterated several times.

Despite personal differences and changes that are brought about by changing times and situations, there is always a consequential tie in the Church's 2,000-year history that binds together the pontificates. Sometimes that tie is much stronger, which successors themselves are wont to point out, above and beyond the respect and even love they may have for their predecessors.

Francis's tie with John Paul II is more direct for the latter made him a bishop in 1992 and a cardinal in 2001. Somehow, when he emphasises Karol Wojtyła's consistency, courage and missionary strength, Francis highlights his own traits and those he wants to infuse in the whole Church. The same goes for the humility and surrender to God's will exalted in Pope John.

John Paul II, coherence and courage

When it comes to John Paul II, we saw Francis' views back when the Polish pope died. On 4 April 2005, when he celebrated Mass in Buenos Aires Cathedral, Card Bergoglio spoke of "coherence" as the first virtue one has to follow in Christ's path and as the hallmark of the late pope's personality.

"John Paul II was just consistent," he said. "He never cheated, he never lied, he never manipulated." Such consistency "cannot be bought" or "studied" but must "be groomed in the heart through worship, the anointing of service to others and righteous conduct."

Wojtyła was therefore consistent "because he let himself be shaped by God's will. He let himself be humiliated by God's will. He let the attitude of obedience grow in him, like that of our father Abraham, and all those who followed him".

On 1 May 2011, when Benedict XVI in Rome led the Mass of beatification of Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop Bergoglio celebrated a solemn Mass of thanksgiving. During the service, he said, "John Paul II was not afraid because he lived his life contemplating the Risen Lord;" therefore,  "may the words of Jesus and the Blessed John Paul resonate even today in our heart: Do not be afraid."

Words like these are reflected in the current pontificate. On 29 July last year, in a question and answer session with journalists, Francis said, "Regarding John Paul II, I would say he was 'the great missionary of the Church': he was a missionary, a man who carried the Gospel everywhere, as you know better than I. How many trips did he make? But he went! He felt this fire of carrying forth the Word of the Lord. He was like Paul, like Saint Paul, he was such a man; for me this is something great."

For his part, "John XXIII is a bit like the figure of the country priest, the priest who loves all the faithful, who knows how to care for the faithful and this he did as a Bishop, and as a Nuncio. [. . .] How great he was, how great! Then, he was also a man of the Council: he was a man docile to the voice of God, which came to him through the Holy Spirit, and he was docile to the Spirit. [. . .] He was a man who let the Lord guide him."

With respect to the Polish Pope, Francis takes a hands-on approach and does not only speak about a Church that goes out into the world without fear to deliver the Gospel message, which is key to its teaching. On 2 April last year, only a month after his election, the pope visited John Paul II's tomb at 7 pm, past the Vatican basilica's closing hour, on the eighth anniversary of his death. He did the same on 31 October, when, at 7 am, he joined the Poles who gather every Thursday for a Mass at the tomb of "their" pope.

His reference to John Paul II in his message on 6 February for the diocesan World Youth Day held on 13 April is also significant because he referred to Pope Wojtyła as "the great patron of the World Youth Days which he inaugurated and always supported."

John XXIII, humility and surrender to God's will

If, according to Francis, the above are John Paul II's traits, humility, prayer and surrender to God's belong to John XXIII, as he himself reiterates on a regular basis in his own lessons.

Although generational factors meant that Pope Francis never developed a personal relationship with John XXII, the former does recall the feelings that came upon him when he heard that the Good Pope had died on 3 June 1963. Speaking to a group of pilgrims from Bergamo on the 50th anniversary of that day, he said, "Those who, like myself, have reached a certain age have vivid memories of the emotion that spread everywhere in those days."

"The whole world had recognized Pope John as a pastor and father; a pastor because he was a father. What had made him one? How had he been able to reach the heart of people so different from each other and even many non-Christians? To answer this question we may refer to his episcopal motto, Oboedientia et Pax: obedience and peace."

"Although peacefulness was his external feature, Roncalli's inner disposition consisted of obedience. Obedience, in fact, was his means for attaining peace. First of all it had a very simple and practical meaning: carrying out in the Church the service that his superiors asked of him, seeking nothing for himself, not shrinking from anything requested of him".

Through this obedience, Roncalli "lived a deeper faithfulness, which we could describe, as he might have said, as abandonment to Divine Providence. [. . .] He was a man of governance, he was a leader. But he was [also] a leader led by the Holy Spirit, out of obedience.

"This is a lesson for each one of us, but also for the Church of our time: if we let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit, if we are able to mortify our selfishness to make room for the Lord's love and for his will, we will find peace, we will be builders of peace and will spread peace around us."

Pope Francis said something similar on 6 June 2013, when he pointed to John XXIII as an example and model for the young priests studying at Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, where future papal representatives train. When he talked to them about "the ministry for which you are preparing", he was talking about John XXIII's example.

"Rereading his [John XXIII's] writings, one is impressed by the care he always took in guarding his soul, in the midst of the most varied ecclesial and political occupations. Here was born his inner freedom, the joy that he conveyed outwardly, and the effectiveness of his pastoral and diplomatic action."

For the two cardinals who served John XXIII and John Paul II as their respective secretary, Pope Francis can recognise a bit of himself in the two popes who will be new saints on 27April.

"At the end of my life," Card Loris Capovilla said, "I have seen for myself that some of Pope John's intuitions have been taken up by Pope Francis. In his speech a few days ago to the ambassadors who presented their credentials, he said that the Church must concern itself in a special way with those who are last. He repeated the very phrase of Pope John spoken in a radio address on September 11, a month before the opening of the Council: 'The Church is everyone's and no one is excluded, but she is especially the Church of the poor'."

Similarly, "Bergoglio speak the language of poverty," said Card Stanisław Dziwisz, "using new words, and the Church needs such charisma. Plus, he also looks like Karol Wojtyła."

"I am convinced," he added, "that history will connect them to one endeavour, namely opening the doors of the Church to everyone, bringing it closer to the real everyday life of the people, and laying down bridges to faraway and hostile worlds."

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