History will show St. John XXIII was a pastor with an “exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit,” while St. John Paul II will be known “as the pope of the family.”
That was as close as Pope Francis came to providing the sound bite all the so-called Vatican experts were waiting to hear during the historic St. Peter’s Square rites in which he — with the retired Pope Benedict XVI looking on — elevated to sainthood two popes who did so much to shape modern Catholicism.
The media mantra called the humble Pope John XXIII the patron saint of the left, while Pope John Paul II was the courageous general for the right. Clearly, Pope Francis’ goal was to broker peace between these warring Catholic camps.
Francis stayed the course.
“St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were … priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” he said. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful — faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history.”
Francis then linked both saints to the Second Vatican Council, the seismic event that defined their era: “John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries.”
So both popes sought renewal, but also to guard the faith’s foundations. After all, in his October 11, 1962 address that opened the Council, Pope John XXIII declared: “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this — that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”
The young Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Poland was an active participant at Vatican II. The future Pope John Paul II was known for his contribution to the epic constitution “The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes),” which he loved to quote, along with various other Vatican II texts.
In fact, during his “heroically long pontificate” — almost 27 years — John Paul offered detailed written and verbal commentary on “virtually every controversial or disputed point in the Council documents and on the event of the Council itself,” noted Father John Zuhlsdorf, at his popular “What does the Prayer Really Say?” weblog.
The future St. John Paul the Great, as many are already calling him, “may not have solved, settled, definitively pronounced, on every controversial issue, but he offers commentary and insight on them. … I think Francis was steering us to John Paul II as an additional interpretive lens, for a proper hermeneutic of reform.”
Meanwhile, it’s also important to remember that “conventional political labels” like “liberal” and “conservative” are simply inadequate when discussing the work of saints, said Father James Martin, a Jesuit best known as The Colbert Report chaplain and through books such as “My Life with the Saints” and “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”
In terms of the substance of his life and work, both liturgical and doctrinal, Pope John XXIII is “probably best thought of as a ‘conservative.’ I think that on moral and sexual issues … he probably would have implemented the Council’s work in the same way as John Paul.”
Meanwhile, John Paul II did so much to push forward on issues such as economic justice, world peace, ecumenism, mass communications and a host of other subjects. It’s impossible to look at the sweep of his remarkable life and conclude, as some critics have, that his pontificate was dedicated to “trying to slam the lid back on” after the Second Vatican Council. “That’s just too simplistic to argue that,” he said.
The larger truth is that both of these popes, now hailed as saints, embodied the work of the Second Vatican Council, each in their own way, in their own time.
“It’s true that there were clusters of issues that led Catholics in different camps to adopt one or the other as their hero,” said Martin. “But those labels are so limiting, while the lives of these two men were not. … People that insist on using political labels keep trying to turn everything into a contest about who wins and who loses. That’s not the way to talk about the lives of the saints.”