“Saint” John Paul II: Salty Servant of the Lord

WHEN JOHN PAUL II DIED ON APRIL 2, 2005, THREE MILLION PEOPLE CAME TO ROME THE NEXT WEEK TO PAY THEIR RESPECTS! And the calls to canonize John Paul II began even before he had been buried. People attending his funeral chanted and held banners saying “Santo subito, santo subito,” short for “Make him a saint now.” Their call was heard. He will be canonized April 27, 2014, the Feast of Divine Mercy, and joy-filled faithful will call him “Saint John Paul II.”

Without doubt John Paul II—John Paul the Great? John Paul, the People’s Pope? John Paul, Pope of the Jews? John Paul, Pope of Youth? John Paul, Conscience of the World?—was a remarkable man! After saying yes to the request to provide some reflections about John Paul II, I found myself in a quandary! What more can be said? Tributes note that he brought us a philosopher’s intellect, a pilgrim’s spiritual intensity and an actor’s flair for the dramatic. Anyone can easily find lists of recent editorials, lists of what world leaders have said about John Paul II, lists of what religious leaders have said about John Paul II, lists of what leaders of other faiths have said about John Paul II!

And then, I remembered the blessing of attending the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto! John Paul II set the direction, the theme of that celebration, with Jesus’ richly significant words: “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). Surely it seems the “salt” theme is ever timely and illuminating, since John Paul II provided concrete, tangible witness as a “salty” servant of Christ and his Church.

Why salt? What are the salient qualities of salt? What is the nature and function of salt? And why does John Paul II merit this specific descriptive? Daily experience provides the answers to the first two questions: salt preserves, purifies and seasons! From a biblical perspective and springing from its preservative nature, salt is emblematic of loyal, faithful friendship with God and others.

Salt preserves! John Paul II made it clear that he knew it was his responsibility to proclaim, defend and explain the faith! No pope in history has published as many homilies, talks, encyclicals and apostolic exhortations as John Paul II. The notions of the complementarity of “faith and reason” peppered his approach! His Christo-centric vision and intensity of focus is

expressed in such statements as: “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis.”

Without doubt though, his greatest preaching was without words! He taught by example; he taught by witness. Indeed, I believe that for 26 years we were blessed to “see a sermon walking”! Consequently, as journalist John Allen noted, when John Paul II urged Christians to duc in altum, to set off into the deep, it resonated even with those who sought very different shores.

Salt purifies! Here I think of John Paul II’s lively engagement with the culture! Through dialogue with scholars and statesmen, with a lively appreciation of the arts and education, he impacted cultures around the world. And surely, as a salty “sign of contradiction” he tenaciously asserted the truth of the inherent dignity of every human person and challenged all to promote a culture of life, to build a civilization of love.

A Church that is relevant to the needs of contemporary man can’t accommodate or mimic the culture. Authentic dialogue and engagement, asserted John Paul II, must be critical. Without hesitation he courageously upheld the “splendor of truth”—often stating what an audience least wanted to hear. Yet his blunt and straightforward message always carried the seeds of hope and compassion, especially for those who were suffering.

Salt seasons! As he zipped around the world, John Paul II manifested an energetic zeal, a certain sense of urgency, a concrete, tangible, spirit of enthusiasm (which Theology students know comes from the Greek: en + theos, “in God-ness, in Love-ness”!) In his first homily as pope, he proclaimed: “Be not afraid. Open the doors to Christ, the doors of your personal and family lives, the doors of your business and career, the doors of your mind and heart. Open the doors to Christ. And be not afraid.”

“Be not afraid.” The refrain reverberated around the world—a marvelous prayerful challenge! Perhaps we could say that this bold and bracing proclamation became the interpretive key to his papacy!

Salt is emblematic of loyal, faithful friendship with God and others! Totus tuus—“Totally yours”—that is the motto Saint John Paul II chose for his life. Thus he held up Mary as a model of holiness for the whole Church, and with a dash of daring updated the rosary with five new “Mysteries of Light.” Ever exemplifying humility, he never let his flock forget that he was human. He delighted all by revealing, “I have a sweet tooth for song and music. This is my Polish sin.”

More seriously, it is good to recall that in the opening lines of “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”—the 1994 book-length interview that became an international best-seller—he noted his own sinfulness and the marvelous mystery of God’s love: “Every man has learned it … I learned it very well. Of what should we not be afraid? We should not fear the truth about ourselves.”

Surely the choice of the Feast of Divine Mercy for this canonization was intentionally chosen. John Paul II had a deep devotion to his fellow Pole Sister Faustina Kowalska and to the Divine Mercy devotion identified with her. In August 2002, in Lagiewniki, Poland where Sister Faustina lived and died, John Paul II entrusted the entire world to Divine Mercy. He was aware that modern culture and its language do not have a place for mercy. Treating it as something strange, people try to compress it, interpret everything in the categories of justice and law.

But this, John Paul II continually asserted, does not suffice! With heartfelt passion he stated, “The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me … which I took with me to the See of Peter and which in a sense forms the image of this Pontificate.” Repeatedly John Paul II wrote and spoke about the need for us to turn to the mercy of God as the answer to the specific problems of our times. “I considered this message my special task. Providence has assigned it to me in the present situation of man, the Church, and the world.” How fitting to remember that God welcomed him “home” to heaven on the Vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy! He more than fulfilled that “special task”!

Let us be grateful that God gave us this “salty” saint to guide the Church through the many challenges of the late 20th century and across the threshold of the third millennium. Has he not specifically earned the title Saint John Paul II?

At the time of his election in 1958, Pope John XXIII was considered by many, perhaps even by the cardinals who voted for him, to be a “caretaker”—an individual who, because of his age, would probably have a short pontificate, dedicated to continuing the agenda of his predecessor. His years were indeed short, but his legacy—both of spirit and action—has had an impact on the Church and on the citizens of the world community.

His holiness and his capacity for human and sacred decision-making were rooted in the family values of his native Bergamo. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born on Nov. 25, 1881, the fourth of fourteen children in a family of sharecroppers. His early life centered on farm labor and the religious practices of his family and his parish church. His interest in study was stimulated in these early years by priests who recognized his intellectual promise and by his sense of vocation. In his journals, the Holy Father notes that he did not remember a time when he did not wish to be a priest. Simplicity and joy were characteristics of his early life that remained constants. He never confused piety with gloom, and in all the positions he filled in his lifetime, Father Roncalli remained a peasant boy at heart.

After ordination in 1904, Father Roncalli served as a teacher in the diocesan seminary and secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo. War intervened and he was called to military service, where he was attached to a medical unit while continuing to teach. During the years following World War I, a confused time that saw the growth of fascist ideology, Father Roncalli devoted time to outreach to students through a Catholic-centered club house and other activities, showing an enthusiasm for social action set in motion by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

This period ended with his appointment as director of the Rome office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and, ultimately, to his assignment in 1925 as papal visitor to Bulgaria. Further diplomatic posts followed: apostolate delegate to Turkey and Greece (1934) and nuncio


to France (1944). In each of these posts, Father Roncalli faced the challenge of anti-religious attitudes and political divisions. He succeeded in becoming a friend to opposing parties by his genuine respect for their traditions and his humble sense of humor. He was able to be a peace-maker without surrendering any part of the Catholic position that he represented. Where no car was available to the Apostolic delegation, he traveled on foot or by bus. Where he was barely tolerated by the government, he responded with courtesy.

The future pope’s move to France presented a different need for reconciliation. Here the question was not cooperation with eastern churches or anti-religious governments, but the post-war challenge of finding a way to peace between former collaborators and the Resistance. In all of these diplomatic posts, Father Roncalli achieved some success because he was essentially a man of peace. His ability to reconcile was not merely a human talent; it was an expression of his own inward peace. In Paris, as in his other assignments, Father Roncalli often walked the streets speaking to passersby and tradesmen. His attention to the common touch was also evident in his learning the languages of the countries; always, his agenda was to try to unite rather than to divide. His life of prayer was not simply devotion; it was an essential attitude, an integral part of his whole personality.

Early in 1953, the Patriarch of Venice died and Pope Pius XII appointed Father Roncalli to the vacant see. As Cardinal Patriarch, he told his first audience that they should think of him as their pastor, not as a diplomat. He was happy to be in the diocese, formerly the See of St. Pius X, and in his home region of Italy; however, his time in Venice was short because he succeeded Pope Pius XII as pope on October 28, 1958. He chose to be called John in honor of his father and the parish where he was baptized.

Behind the pomp and ceremony of the papacy, John XXIII remained a simple parish priest. He was no prisoner of the Vatican, but moved beyond the walls to visit seminaries, orphanages and parishes. He often surprised the people of Rome by strolling through the streets; however, he surprised the faithful most by his announcement of an ecumenical council. The Second Vatican Council grew, in part, from the pope’s priestly experience as a minister of peace to various religious traditions and cultures. He recognized the need for opening the Church to the realities of the 20th century and the need for every member to become an instrument of Christ’s peace.

The first session of the Council began on October 11, 1962. Unfortunately, the Holy Father did not live to see its completion. During his final months, he remained active in his commitment to peace by offering to mediate between President Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His death, on June 3, 1963, occurred just four and a half years after his election and two months after the completion of his famed encyclical Pacem in Terris.

His road to sainthood began in Bergamo; the official route was solemnized in 2000, when he was declared “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II. Shortly after the 50th anniversary of John XXIII’s death, Pope Francis approved his cause for canonization without the second miracle, noting instead the merits of his predecessor’s vision for Vatican II. Good Pope John will be canonized on April 27, 2014. His feast is celebrated, not on the anniversary of his death but on October 11, the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Author: Cesar Molina

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