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On April 27, 2014, the Church recognizes two giants of recent Catholic and world history, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, as saints. Who were these men? Why are they so important to the Church? How did their leadership affect the world beyond the Church? Author Carol Ann Morrow offers a summary of each man’s long and fruitful life as well as highlights of their papacies.

Messengers of God's Mercy: Saints John XXIII and John Paul II
By: Carol Ann Morrow

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On April 27, 2014, the Church recognizes as saints two giants of recent Catholic and world history. Both Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were messengers of God’s mercy, so it’s fitting they be canonized on the day Pope John Paul II established as Divine Mercy Sunday.

God’s mercy figured prominently in their spiritual journeys and papacies. John Paul’s second encyclical, “Rich in Mercy,” is a plea to make room for mercy in modern life. In this, he echoes the words John XXIII used when opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962: “The Spouse of Christ [the Church] prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

Who were these men? Why are they so important to the Church? How did their leadership affect the world beyond the Church? What can we learn from them?
POPE JOHN THE GOOD (1881–1963)

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was the fourth child of 13 in the largest family in Sotto il Monte, Italy, where his father was a sharecropper. At 10, Angelo enrolled in the junior seminary in Bergamo. At 14, he began a journal, a discipline he continued for 67 years until August 1962. The very next month, he experienced the first signs that Sister Death, as he called mortality, was knocking. He died on June 3, 1963. His final words were “Lord, you know that I love you.”

Pope John’s spiritual diary, Journal of a Soul, seldom records the colorful details of his life’s outer adventures. These include two stints in the military—the first as a seminarian, the second during World War I.

Father Roncalli was never a parish priest but served as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo and as a seminary professor. He had a keen interest in history and over time edited the writings of St. Charles Borromeo concerning the reform of the Church after the Council of Trent. From St. Charles, he absorbed the significance of a Church council, an appreciation that came to fruition during his papacy.

From 1925 to 1953, he held diplomatic posts in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and France. In 1953, he became cardinal patriarch of Venice, his first pastoral assignment—at the age of 72. He felt sure he would die there. Five years later, he was elected pope.

What did he record in his journal? Father Roncalli wrote notes, regrets, concerns, and resolutions inspired by his annual retreat or other days of prayer. He jotted about his inner life and his desire to be a faithful priest. On assignment in Turkey and Greece, he wrote, “I am a teacher of mercy and truth. And by teaching these I shall also contribute a great deal to the social order.”

Prophetically, he wrote in 1940, “My own happy nature, which is a great gift from God, has kept me immune from those afflictions which accompany daring and generous spirits. . . . But it is only to be expected that, before the end of my humble life, the Lord will send me trials of a particularly painful nature.”

During a retreat in Algeria in 1950, he pondered his spiritual journey thus far and wrote that he recited the Miserere (Psalm 51) as repentance for all he had done and the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) for all the Lord had done for him. The man who recorded this tension between penance and praise was elected pope on October 28, 1958.

On retreat in 1959, Pope John wrote, “The whole world is my family. This sense of belonging to everyone must give character and vigor to my mind, my heart, and my actions.” In 1962, he wrote that he’d received two great graces for a poor man: to have accepted the papacy and to have called Vatican II. Neither was anticipated or planned.

He became known for his ecumenical and interfaith outreach. His background in diplomacy prepared him to ease the tensions that could have led to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He saw the world as his parish and made a plea for peace to “all people of good will” in “Peace on Earth,” the first encyclical ever addressed to those beyond the borders of the Church.

The historical highlights of his papacy are detailed at right. But history doesn’t make all popes saints; with the additions of John XXIII and John Paul II, only 82 popes have been canonized. His papacy lasted just four years, seven months, and six days.

The Church’s conviction that he was in touch with God, his leadership decisions were divinely inspired, and Vatican II was a miracle leads us to call him saint now. His feast is October 11, the anniversary of his opening Vatican II with words about the Church’s mercy.

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Karol Josef Wojtyla’s youth was as rocky as Angelo Roncalli’s was smooth. The youngest of three children born to Karol and Emilia Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, he’d lost his entire family by age 20. Nazi Germany had invaded his country, requiring that he become a manual laborer to avoid being deported.

An outstanding student, Karol persisted in his studies even though the underground university was outlawed. He was active in a drama group and seemed destined for a life onstage. But in 1942, he discerned a call to the priesthood and began studies in a clandestine seminary. Following World War II, he completed his studies and was ordained in 1946. He had confronted—as had the people of his nation and much of the world—the horror of evil.

Between ordination to the priesthood in 1946 and consecration as a bishop in 1958, Father Wojtyla finished two doctorates, served in several Krakow parishes, and was a university chaplain and seminary professor. An active outdoorsman, he favored hiking, kayaking, skiing, and camping. Physical activity was balanced by prayer and reflection. As archbishop of Krakow, his mornings included Mass, two hours writing in the presence of the Eucharist, and pacing a walk by the beads of his rosary.

Calling it the “seminary of the Holy Spirit,” he attended every session of Vatican II and served on the drafting committee of its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” He was teaching philosophy at the University of Lublin (Poland) at the time of his election as pope in 1978. He was more pastor than administrator, a style he carried into his 27-year papacy.

The name chosen by this 263rd successor of Peter summed up the continuity he also chose. John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I were all acknowledged in the name by which we remember him: John Paul II. He determined not to be crowned with a papal tiara (traditional since the eighth century), which he felt could be viewed as a symbol of might and wealth. In his inaugural prayer, he said, “Christ, make me . . . the servant of your sweet power.” He also spoke the words of Jesus, “Be not afraid,” a central message of his papacy.

What the Church and world saw of Pope John Paul II was impressive, but seldom seen were the spiritual disciplines undergirding his public life. He rose at 5:30 a.m., went directly to his private chapel, and knelt in prayer for two hours. There, he interceded for those who requested his prayers, as recorded on paper by his secretaries and kept at his kneeler. Following 7:30 Mass and breakfast, he wrote in the presence of the Eucharist until 11 a.m. He prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, walked the Way of the Cross every Friday, and received the Sacrament of Reconciliation every week. His aides sometimes found him lying face down before the tabernacle, as though mere kneeling were not enough.

Three months after his election, Pope John Paul II began the first of many pastoral pilgrimages, logging nearly 700,000 miles in 27 years. Critics thought he should govern the Church from Rome. In Zaire, he expressed the view of those whose native soil he kissed: “How could you be our pastor without knowing us? Without knowing who we are, how we live, what is the historical moment we are going through?” He said he wasn’t only the successor of Peter but also of Paul, who “could never sit still.”

His universal pastorate required him to challenge political leaders. He said, “To the Gospel message, of course, belong all the problems of human rights.” He said this of Chile, but his message also shook governments in Poland, Haiti, and Cuba.

His influence and many achievements are chronicled on the previous page. The holiness he acknowledged in others through many beatifications and canonizations is also revealed in the man who forgave his attempted assassin, tried to reunify a Church divided by history, and expressed regret for the “Church’s historical shortcomings.” His last words were “Let me go to the house of the Father.” Declaring him an official saint simply confirms his current address in heaven. Pope John Paul II’s feast is October 22, the anniversary of his inauguration as leader of the Church. 


° 1958 Was elected pope and inaugurated on feast of St. Charles Borromeo
° 1959 Announced the convening of Vatican II; revised the Good Friday Prayer for
   the Jewish people
° 1960 Established the Secretariat for Christian Unity
° 1961 Wrote the encyclical “On Christianity and Social Progress,”enlarging the
   scope of Catholic social teaching to include developing nations and challenging
   the laity to work for social justice
° 1962 Opened the Second Vatican Council; intervened effectively with the Soviet
   Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis
° 1963 Wrote “Peace on Earth,” the first encyclical addressed to the world at
   large, making a plea for nuclear disarmament


° 1978 Became first Slavic pope
° 1979 Visited Puebla, Mexico, first of visits to 129 countries; made first pilgrimage
   to Poland; made first of 129 lectures on the Theology of the Body; wrote
   “Redeemer of Mankind,” first of 12 encyclicals
° 1981 Survived first of two attempts on his life
° 1982 Canonized his first saint: Maximilian Kolbe (481 more saints followed)
° 1983 Introduced new Code of Canon Law
° 1985 Initiated World Youth Day
° 1986 Made the first official papal visit to a synagogue; hosted World Day of
   Prayer in Assisi
° 1992 Apologized for Church persecution of Galileo, first of over 100 public
   apologies; presented Catechism of the Catholic Church to the world
° 1994 Released Crossing the Threshold of Hope, first of five books as pope
° 2001 Was the first pope to enter a mosque
° 2002 Announced Year of the Rosary, added the Luminous Mysteries

Carol Ann Morrow is an award-winning Catholic journalist and an Associate of the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana. She has written many times about saints old and new.

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Our Lady of Sorrows: For a while there were two feasts in honor of the Sorrowful Mother: one going back to the 15th century, the other to the 17th century. For a while both were celebrated by the universal Church: one on the Friday before Palm Sunday, the other in September. 
<p>The principal biblical references to Mary's sorrows are in Luke 2:35 and John 19:26-27. The Lucan passage is Simeon's prediction about a sword piercing Mary's soul; the Johannine passage relates Jesus' words to Mary and to the beloved disciple. </p><p>Many early Church writers interpret the sword as Mary's sorrows, especially as she saw Jesus die on the cross. Thus, the two passages are brought together as prediction and fulfillment. </p><p>St. Ambrose (December7) in particular sees Mary as a sorrowful yet powerful figure at the cross. Mary stood fearlessly at the cross while others fled. Mary looked on her Son's wounds with pity, but saw in them the salvation of the world. As Jesus hung on the cross, Mary did not fear to be killed but offered herself to her persecutors.</p> American Catholic Blog For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name. —Blessed John Paul II

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