On April 27, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized together at a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. This is the second post looking at the legacies of these two popes for political theology.
Saints show us what it looks like to live the Beatitudes – Jesus’ teaching about the path to holiness, happiness, and union with God – in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances. Both Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II lived this path to holiness in many extraordinary ways.
Like Saint Peter, who publicly disavowed Jesus, Saint Paul, who persecuted Christians prior to his conversion, and Saint Augustine, who acknowledged his waywardness in his Confessions, neither of these popes were perfect. But if we take even just a few examples from their personal stories, we come to appreciate the holiness of these two great men. They have left us powerful testaments to the Spirit’s ability to help us overcome our sinful tendencies and live out the Beatitudes (MT 5-11, NRSV).
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Many have written that Pope John XXIII, who had a poor peasant upbringing, displayed a humility that enabled him to open the Church to the modern world, and to express the desire to learn from and work with those outside the Church. This strong impulse in “The Good Pope” led him to endorse the right to religious freedom of all people – for the first time in the history of Roman Catholicism – and to convene the Second Vatican Council, which, according to esteemed historian John O’Malley, S.J., sought “rapprochement” with the world.
Pope John distinguished between erroneous ideas and the people who hold them. People who hold mistaken views retain their dignity and must “be always regarded and treated in accordance with that lofty dignity.” He also affirmed that false systems of thought may have “elements that are positive and deserving of approval” (Pacem in Terris, nos. 158-59). In this vein, he opened the door to dialogue with atheists and socialists. This disposition is desperately needed in a church that is today deeply divided by ideological rifts. Fortunately, Pope Francis appears to be walking in the footsteps of John XXIII when it comes to honest and respectful dialogue with those who hold different views, as evidenced by his “letter to a non-believer.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”
Pope John Paul II gave us an incredible witness to the possibility of mercy and forgiveness – even in the most trying situations – by not only forgiving the man who almost killed him, but also by befriending him and his family. His actions and his call to abandon recourse to capital punishment have energized Catholics around the world seeking an end to the death penalty.
He was also not afraid to ask for forgiveness. He had a hand in the Polish bishops’ conference landmark 1965 letter to the Catholic bishops in Germany, calling for mutual forgiveness and dialogue in order to put the horrors of World War II behind the Polish and German nations. In an unprecedented act of repentance for a pope, he declared that “the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”
Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II can rightly be called “the human rights popes.” In their teaching and their actions, they did more to advance the church’s teaching on human rights and to promote the dignity and rights of the human person globally than any other pope. Blessed John’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris brought about a sea change in the Roman Catholic tradition. It declared for the first time the Catholic Church’s full commitment to the modern human rights agenda, encompassing democratic freedoms and economic, social, and cultural rights. Blessed John Paul built on the foundation of John XXIII by unremittingly reminding the world of the inviolable dignity of the human person and her rights on pastoral visits all over the world. This is why in 2011 the United Nations honored him as a “consistent promoter of peace and human rights.” He trenchantly reminded Christians not to dismiss human rights as a product of the Enlightenment, or a “wish list” of political parties. Rather, argued the pontiff, Jesus Christ and his Gospel are the ultimate source of human rights. Moreover, John Paul argued that the rights of the poor and marginalized cannot be postponed because affluent nations and individuals think their “freedom” entitles them to hyper-consumption (see Redemptor Hominis, no.16). He also penned the Church’s most complete ethic and spirituality of labor, Laborem Exercens. John Paul maintained that the Son of God became a carpenter, thereby revealing that all work possesses equal dignity because it is done by a human being. All workers – not just those highly valued by the market – must be guaranteed rights such as a just wage, affordable healthcare, rest, retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, maternity leave, and safe working conditions (no. 19).
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”
John XXIII personally witnessed the horrors of World War I and World War II and hoped that the world would never encounter such tragedy again. He personally intervened during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 by appealing to President Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to avert war, possibly playing a significant role in easing the tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. His ardent desire for world peace also motivated him to finish his great encyclical Pacem in Terris, which means Peace on Earth, even though he was dying of cancer. The document was lauded by politicians and pundits throughout the world.
Personal experience also informed John Paul II’s ideas about the nefariousness of violence and warfare, as many of his teachers were exterminated by the Nazis and he himself endured forced labor. He played a crucial role in bringing about the peaceful end of Communism in his native Poland, where the Communist apparatchiks feared him as a “troublemaker.” Not reluctant himself to confront General Jaruzelski in Poland and Brezhnev in the Kremlin, John Paul’s exhortation to his compatriots “Be not afraid” in Warsaw in 1979 sparked the moral revolution that came to be known as Solidarność. According to Lech Wałesa – and Jaruzelski and many others – those words not only changed Poland, but changed the world.
Building on a process John XXIII started, John Paul II also did more than any other pope to bring about reconciliation between Christians and Jews, whom he called “our elder brothers and sisters in faith.” He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (asking for forgiveness for the sin of anti-Semitism), and to recognize diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.
In gratitude for his efforts, the Anti-Defamation League released this statement upon the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s papacy: “His deep commitment to reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people has been fundamental to his papacy. Jews throughout the world are deeply grateful to the Pope. He has defended the Jewish people at all times, as a priest in his native Poland and during his pontificate…We pray that he remains healthy for many years to come, that he achieves much success in his holy work and that Catholic-Jewish relations continue to flourish.”
John Paul was also the first pope to visit a country predominantly populated by Muslims. On his visit to Turkey in 1979 he underscored the common moral teachings of Islam and Christianity, and cited the Qur’an in doing so. He famously prayed with leaders from many of the world’s great religions in Assisi in 1986 and 2002. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a participant in the 1986 gathering, said this groundbreaking event “caused the Church to make a great leap forward towards non-Christian religions.” It breathed life into Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate.
In short, these great popes have provided inspiring examples of Christian disciples who have embodied the Beatitudes in word and deed. In doing so, they accomplished many extraordinary things and helped the Church and the world to become more just and peaceful places. This does not mean they were without flaws. While feminist theologians such as Lisa Sowle Cahill and Christine Firer Hinze have applauded John Paul’s strides in promoting the equality and rights of women, they have also argued that his thinking on the matter left more work to be done in this area. Critics have contended that both of these popes could have done more to halt sexual abuse in the Church. Even some Catholic prelates have acknowledged as much. For example, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, who knew John Paul well, said: “He was not infallible in the whole of his life and in each action, or each idea he had … Is it possible that he trusted some persons because he wasn’t aware of their faults, or wasn’t convinced of their sins? It’s quite possible he was wrong in that, but at that time it was his conviction.”
Catholics believe that even saints are sinners, and in need of God’s mercy. The failings of John XXIII and John Paul II do not cancel out their remarkable contributions to the Church and the world. Catholic Christians recognize the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives and legacies of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, for which they and many others are grateful.
Gerald J. Beyer is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University in Villanova, PA, USA. He is the author of Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution (University of Notre Dame Press).