Three days ago on Divine Mercy Sunday Pope Francis raised to the altars John XXIII, and John Paul II. Both men were examples of mercy, but both had to battle with something that had not been quite so evident to the Church as in former ages, and implacably hostile “World”. This world was the child of the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian revolution. The world of the 20th century was above all a world of the scientist, and the technocrat. It was a world that supremely mirrored Satan’s desire to be like God, in fact to be God. This drug of science and technology which offered you hope either through a Marxist view of life, a Capitalist view of life, and with the Nazi experiment a racist view of life, was meant to be a solution to all the World’s woes. These three ways were bent on one thing UTOPIA. Utopia is a mirage, because of sin. Man’s avarice, greed and hatred will always prevent Utopia from being nothing more than a dream. Be it Coca Cola or Communism, Manhattan, Hollywood, Moscow or Nuremberg rallies, it is not, and never can be Heaven.
St. John XXIII with his wonderful and happy nature optimistically opened the Council on October 11th with his speech “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” in which he said that the Council was not doctrinal, but was to update things in the Church so that it could “transmit the [Catholic] doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and controversies, has become the common patrimony of men.” However men did not want to hear the truth, and they certainly did not respond to “Good Pope John” as he had expected. For he thought that there was no need to condemn error as the truth was so self evident. It was no doubt the horrors of the Second World War, and the spread of Communism that John thought had spent themselves, which in his estimation meant that mankind was so exhausted that it would now throw itself gratefully into the arms of Mother Church. Such a marvellous and child like trust was rewarded with the pill, the swinging sixties, the student revolution the suppression of the Prague Spring, the dreadful barbarism of the Cultural Revolution, the horrors of the Vietnam War, and the genocide of “The Killing Fields in Cambodia”, and more immediately on 22nd October, eleven days after the opening of the Council, John F. Kennedy put a blockade around Cuba that nearly resulted in World War III. It would seem that this did not have a profound effect on the more progressive Fathers of The Council. Whether John went to his death with the same optimism one will never know. He had in his life heroically tried to be a true father to everyone that he met, and he succeeded, which shows that he had truly practiced heroic charity, and his wonderful sayings are an still an inspiration today and are worth far more than many a heavy tome of modern and leaden theology written by some dry modernist theologian of which there are far too many. In all this he was indeed a merciful Pope.
St.John Paul, a titan bestriding the globe, was a true intellectual, a man of prayer and action on a grand scale, a man who suffered amidst the horrors that made Poland a crucible of suffering during the invasions of Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany during The Second World War. No-one can imagine what that heroic land suffered except the Russians themselves, which is a supreme irony, for the Russians suffered at the hands of their dreadful leaders, and few were as dreadful as Joseph Stalin, with the one notable exception of Mao Tse Tung, who the biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore has called “the biggest monster of them all.” John Paul’s greatness showed itself in his teachings on morals and social matters. His implacable opposition to Communism, and also to Capitalism made him both loved and hated; sadly many Catholic priests and religious hated him, because he was not the supposed liberal that John XXIII was. John Paul ascends the Papal throne in to change the Church’s direction after the deplorable Ostpolitik of Paul VI, whose betrayal of Cardinal Mindszenty can in no way be excused. Cardinal Lekai, Mindszenty’s successor, was on the receiving end when John Paul sternly told him to stand up to the communists in Hungary.
Both John XXIII and John Paul brought joy to their pontificates; neither man got everything right, but neither did St. Bernard, nor St. Ignatius of Loyola, two of the most dominating figures in the history of the Church. What John and John Paul did was to make the Christian life one of adventure, which means there will be ups and downs on the way. Such an adventure requires trust, and one certainly needs trust in the post Vatican II church, where so much has gone very wrong.
Both men showed mercy in their lives in very concrete ways. Early on in his pontificate John went to the Ara Coeli Prison, on Christmas day, if my memory serves me correctly. There one of the prisoners knelt before the Pope and asked if he could forgive him as he was a murderer. The Pope embrace him and lifted him up, and rather touchingly said that he had a relative who was in prison. It must be added though that it was not for murder. Just over 20 years later John Paul went to the prison to forgive Ali Agca who had tried to kill him, and that meeting was immortalized forever in a wonderful photo of the event.
There was certainly a great majesty about John Paul, and a marvellous earthy warmth about John who was indeed the epitome of the archetypal good peasant that he was. Both men sought to be men of mercy, understanding, and gentleness, and that in a decided cruel and sentimental age that has been our own since the end of the Second World War and that is no mean feat.
May these two marvellous men aid the Church and the World in this time of dire crisis. St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II pray for us.