Pictures of the late popes John XXIII and John Paul II — now newly-minted saints — are common about Rome these days. Large pictures, as one might expect, are particularly plentiful in the neighborhood of Vatican City. But every vender of postcards across the city is selling images of the two canonized popes, who reigned, respectively, from 1958-1963 and 1978-2005.
I remember John XXIII somewhat, and John Paul II vividly. My wife and I were married in 1978, the year of three popes. Paul VI died during our honeymoon, the pontificate of John Paul I lasted only thirty-three days, and then John Paul II was elected. He reigned for nearly 26.5 years.
And there’s another common image: Pope emeritus Benedict XVI greeting his successor, Pope Francis. (See one such at the head of this post.) This isn’t exactly a common scene. Before Benedict, the most recent pope to resign was Gregory XII, in 1415. So there haven’t been a lot of happy encounters (or any other encounters) between popes — particularly over the past six hundred years — since, typically, a pope’s predecessor has been dead. And there weren’t many photographs or postcards in the early fifteenth century.
Pope John Paul II is, to the best of my knowledge, the only saint or eventual saint that I’ve ever seen in the flesh. During a previous visit to Rome, I was invited by Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, along with three other Mormon friends, to attend a special service with the pope in the great papal basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura (or St. Paul Outside the Walls). The Pope passed by me, about ten or fifteen feet away. He was very frail by that time.
I’ll have to check the date. It may have been this one, on 18 January 2000. It was a service to which representatives of the “separated” Christian churches of the East were invited, and, as Cardinal Cassidy explained to us, John Paul II plainly didn’t want to hold the service in St. Peter’s Basilica, which is a symbol of papal power and of the popes’ claim to be the successors of Peter and the heads of Christendom worldwide. There we were, four Mormons in dark suits, white shirts, and ties, immediately behind the bishops and cardinals in their purples and scarlets. It was a very remarkable experience.
Another thing: During our private visit with Cardinal Cassidy, who was at the time the third-ranking leader in the Catholic Church (after the Pope, John Paul II at the time, and the Vatican Secretary of State) a couple of moments were particularly striking. One involved the question of continuous revelation. “I can guarantee you,” he said emphatically, holding both hands in front of himself with the palms down, “that no pope has ever received a revelation.”
Cardinal Cassidy, who is now nearly ninety, has long since retired to his native Australia. In 2006, I was privileged to be part of a program on the grounds of the Sydney Australia Temple in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presented him with an award for his lifetime of work in interfaith relations. (See the Wikipedia link given just above.)
It was richly deserved. He is a wonderful man.
The canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II, however, makes me feel a bit sorry for two other popes. Neither Paul VI nor Benedict XVI attained the popularity, I think, that their immediate predecessors did, and neither is likely to become a saint. Paul VI was especially hurt, in my view, by the prohibition of artificial birth control in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. And Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was at a disadvantage because, when he assumed the papacy, he had already served since 1981 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which role he was seen as pretty much the doctrinal watchdog of the Catholic Church. A thankless task. Both, in other words, were seen as, to a large degree, out of sync with the spirit and values of contemporary society — which isn’t perhaps, in the cosmic scheme of things, a uniformly bad thing.
Posted from Rome, Italy