This Sunday, which concludes the eight-day celebration of Easter, we will witness something that has never occurred – the canonization of two popes in one ceremony. Excitement is high in part because adult Catholics are very, even personally, familiar with John Paul II, and elder Catholics (myself included) have a memory of the avuncular John XXIII and his astounding call for Church reform.
Pope Saint John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli in 1881, was ordained a priest in 1904 and was active as both a papal diplomat and a diocesan bishop. Elected pope by the College of Cardinals in 1958, one of his first acts was to buck the hierarchy and call for an Ecumenical Council- the first in nearly a century. The theme of this blog site is ‘aggiornamento for 21st century America”; Saint John XXIII popularized the Italian term, which means a ‘bringing up to date’, in his description of the reason for Vatican Council II: it was time to fling open the windows and allow in fresh air. The holy pope presided over the first session of the historic Council in Autumn 1962 and then died in June 1963. The remaining three sessions of the Vatican Council continued under the auspices of Pope Paul VI in the autumns of 1963-65.
As Pope, John wrote two encyclicals- papal letters to the whole Church- Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, referring to the Church, 1961) and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963).
But what makes John – or anyone – a saint?
The word ‘saint’ comes from the Greek hagios, literally meaning a holy one/person. The New Testament uses the term to refer to one who believes in, and lives a life according to the model of, Christ Jesus. This would be people not unlike you and me hopefully. As the Church has evolved, the term saint has taken a more eschatological nuance and we acknowledge specific people in the Church Triumphant- those who have passed into life with the Lord in heaven. The Church does not claim to know everyone who is in heaven, but it recognizes two methods of identifying people as being in heaven:
- those who have been martyred for their faith;
- those for whom there is evidence of their having lived an exemplary Christian life (after which the Church deems the person “Venerable”) and for whom there is overwhelming evidence of a miracle that can only be ascribed to this person, which is evidence of their now being in heaven (after which the Church deems the person “Blessed”).
Canonization is the Church’s formal recognition of a person’s both having met either of these two qualifications and also after an additional miracle is documented.
Canonization does not make one a saint; it is merely our recognition that the person is indeed a saint (in heaven). One can be a saint in heaven without our declaring it or even our knowing it. The purpose of canonization is to provide official models for us to follow or from whom to get inspiration to a Christ-like life, and also as an intercessor for us as a strengthening of our relationship with Christ.
The need for a second miracle attributed to Saint John XXIII was waived by the Pope as is his prerogative. The healing miracle that was obviously at John XXIII’s intercession is, well, incredible! Read the official witness here. Watch for a follow-up blog on Saint John Paul II later this week.
— Eric Wolf