New Saints! New Saints! 2nd Sunday Easter
A year and a half ago the Catholic Church received her newest Saints. Among them were two Americans: Sr. Marianne Cope and Kateri Tekakwitha. The new parish encompassing Gallatin County came into being that very same day. So we get to say that our parish is named for one of the Church’s newest batch of Saints. But we can only say that for a few more hours. Sunday morning in Rome - the middle of Saturday night here - Pope Francis will canonize two more Saints, and our new newest Saints will be Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. And he’s chosen the Feast of Divine Mercy to do it. That wasn’t an accident.
Pope John XXIII was known for his sense of humor. He wrote once that the three ways a man faces ruin are women, gambling, and farming, and said ‘my father chose the most boring.’ One time, visiting a child in the hospital, the boy said that when he grew up he wanted to be either a policeman or the Pope. John XXIII said “I think you should go for policeman. They’ll make anybody the Pope, look at me!” His most famous quip was when a journalist asked him “How many people work at the Vatican?” and he said “Oh, about half.”
So it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the Cardinals thought Pope John XXIII was joking when he said he wanted to call an ecumenical Council. Some actually did think, it’s been reported, that the poor old man had lost it. He said he wanted to begin the Council in 1963. They said there was no way that could happen. Okay, he said, 1962 then. And he did. When the Council opened, he said that its purpose was to transmit pure and whole the Catholic Faith of the ages, which remained true for all people in all times. There are those who talk as though if John XXIII had lived long enough, the Council would have changed all sorts of doctrines. They are mistaken. But also mistaken are those who think that the Council’s only goal was to repeat what the Church had been saying before. Pope John said that the Faith was one thing, and the way in which it was presented was another. He said that in our time, “the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” If you read the documents of the Council, I think you will find that this spirit runs through them all. The soon-to-be Saint Pope John XXIII did not live to see most of the Council he called. But the course he set was the course it followed.
Remember that phrase, from Pope John XXIII’s opening address at the Council: “the medicine of mercy.” To talk about medicine presumes there’s a sickness. It also presumes that we can and should do something about it. That one word alone rules out of bounds a too-optimistic outlook that pretends everything’s great in our modern world of progress, and rules equally out of bounds a too-pessimistic outlook that says the world’s going to hell in a hand basket and fails to see anything redeeming anywhere. What the Church brings the world is the medicine, the remedy. Good Pope John believed that the medicine most needed in our time is mercy.
That’s the nickname history has given him: “Good Pope John.” The other man to be canonized today has a similar nickname. It was given to him by the crowd filling Rome at his funeral, who spontaneously took up the chant: “Magnus! Magnus!” And thus acclaimed him as John Paul the Great. I only know of two other Popes who carry that name: Leo the Great, Gregory the Great. It’s not an official title; there’s no procedure for granting it or anything. It’s only and always a grassroots title. Time will tell whether it sticks, but I’m among those who use it without hesitation.
To someone who didn’t understand, it could seem like “Good” Pope John was deemed not quite to measure up to John Paul the “Great.” But I don’t think that’s the way to take it. They were simply different men, with very different styles. John Paul II occupied the Chair of Peter five times as long as John XXIII. The world needed different things from these Popes, and they were both in their own way the right man for their time. But even still, what they held in common far outstripped what made them different. If you study the life, the writings, the actions of John Paul the Great, I think you’ll find that his too was a life dedicated to bringing the medicine of mercy to a hurting world.
It was he who Beatified the Apostle of Divine Mercy, Sr. Faustina, a fellow Pole of his parent’s generation. She received personal revelations about God’s mercy that she faithfully recorded in a diary that you can read (I’ll loan it to you!). In the year of our Lord 2000, he canonized her. And he heeded her call to establish the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. He died on the Vigil of this feast, and was beatified on this feast in 2011.
Our two new Saints were great men, great Popes, and most importantly great Christians, because of their trust in God’s mercy. You might not naturally think of them as sinners, because they’re Saints. We sometimes have a very wrong way of speaking of Saints and Sinners as though they are different groups of people. That’s not Christianity. The group of “sinners” is, well, everybody. Within that group is a smaller group of Saints. And the Saints are the sinners who are most in touch with the mercy of God, most overcome by it, most transformed by it, and most full of passion to share it with others.
I hope you can follow the canonization in some way: it’ll be on EWTN on TV, and also through their website. I’m sure there’ll be lots of coverage. Try to stick with EWTN or official Vatican sources. The major networks will probably follow their usual pattern of almost completely missing the point of anything Catholic. Like insisting that everything be smashed into the narrative categories of American politics: the moment someone starts talking about the ‘liberal’ Pope John XXIII or the ‘conservative’ Pope John Paul II, please realize this person is wasting your time.
Most importantly, I hope we can all take this moment to heart. It’s not just a piece of history, though it is a big piece of history being made. It’s not just a good story, though it is an inspiring story indeed. It’s a challenge, a call: to fill our lives with that same power. To believe in God’s mercy, to be transformed by it, and to be witnesses and messengers of the only medicine that can truly heal this hurting world.