From this day forward, April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, will be recalled as the day when two much loved and admired popes of the 20th century were canonized by a much loved and admired pope of the 21st century.
The beloved Saint John XXIII, formerly Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, called for the historical Second Vatican Council. I recall in my youth reading about his unique sense of humor and confident persona, often making fun of his own short stature, his unusually large facial features and even his weight. There is a story told about Pope John meeting a young Italian boy named Angelo. The pope quipped, “That was my name, too before they made me change it!”
Pope John is also remembered for his exceptional background as a Vatican diplomat, gifted administrator, and ambassador for ecumenism besides being a loving priest and gentle shepherd of Christ.
Saint John Paul was present at the Council as a young Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyła. When he later became pope and took the double name, John-Paul, this gesture signified his esteem John XXIII and Paul VI, both of whom presided over the historical Council, as well as, the 33-day Pope John Paul I, formerly Albino Luciani, who likewise admired his two predecessors.
Like Saint John XXIII, Saint John Paul II had a unique sense of humor, a sharp intellect and an impressive history of dodging the Nazis during World War II and confronting the repressive communist regime in Poland for many years as a priest and bishop.
The decree on the “Ministry and Life of Priests,” (Presbyterorum Ordinis), is but one example of how Vatican II provided the “aggiornamento” or updating envisioned by John XXIII, not only for the clergy but for the entire Church. This decree became the launching pad for the worldwide program of priestly formation, “I Shall Give You Shepherds” (Pastores Dabo Vobis) later formulated and promulgated in 1992 by Saint John Paul II.
There will be a myriad of new books written about these two popes added to the official community of saints. Like the stories of most ordained priests, I hope that the narratives written about them emphasize the fact that they were members of the laity for more than 20 years before receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders. It was because of their common baptism that John XXIII and John Paul II, inspired by the Holy Spirit, responded with the greatest generosity to pursue ordination to the holy priesthood. It was their cooperation with the grace of God that set them on the road to sainthood and which provides an example to both priests and laity that the pursuit of sanctity is worthwhile.
Saint John XXIII ‘s 1959 encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (SNP), is referenced in Vatican II’s “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” (Presbyterorum Ordinis), commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of the patron saint of ordained priests, St. John Vianney. Pope John begins by writing about his own ordination to the holy priesthood in 1904 when Saint Pius X was pope. John XXIII develops three main themes from the life of St. John Vianney: (1). priestly life and discipline, (2). prayer and devotion to the Eucharist, and (3). pastoral zeal. Thus we see how the Church develops Her teaching, one papal document building on another and one generation constructing its theological insights on prior ideas, carefully crafted by previous Church leaders who loved God above all else. Throughout the encyclical Pope John XXIII appeals for the support of ordained priests upon whom so much depends.
More than 40 years after beloved John’s pre-Vatican II encyclical, Saint John Paul II wrote a post-Vatican II apostolic letter in which he said: “[The documents of Vatican II] need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart … I feel more than ever duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings…” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 57).
Pope John XXIII served as pope for 4 1/2 years and Pope John Paul II for more than 25 years. Yet, it is the quality and intensity of presence and not the number of years that make these two popes true disciples of Christ and men of the Church, giving us an extraordinary example of service and love to imitate. While John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council, announcing it in his 1961 Apostolic Letter Humanae Salutis, John Paul II gave us hundreds of writings, directing our attention to the Council again and again, making it fresh and relevant for a new generation of Catholics.
The themes introduced by the Council in Presbyterorum Ordinis are brought to full expression by Pope John Paul. In his 1992 program on priestly formation (Pastores Dabo Vobis) John Paul provides a clever synthesis and expansion of ideas regarding the human and ecclesial (or church) themes from this Vatican II document. Summarized under what he calls the four pillars of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral), John Paul sets down a holistic approach to the formation of seminarians and the continued formation of ordained priests. Pastores Dabo Vobis will continue to be a valuable instrument for the Church, providing a way to create and modify desired competences among candidates for the Sacrament of Holy Orders and those already ordained.
Throughout Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO), a relationship is forged between the laity and the ordained priest. For the Church, the ordained priest embraces the role of “father and teacher,” leading the laity into lives of discipleship commonly shared as members of the People of God and Mystical Body of Christ. Thus ordained priests are to “acknowledge and promote the dignity of the laity,” listening carefully to their concerns, and allowing them “freedom and room for action.” Ordained priests “have been placed in the midst of the laity to lead them to the unity of charity.” As “defenders of the common good, with which they are charged in the name of the bishop … they are to be strenuous assertors of the truth, lest the faithful be carried about by every wind of doctrine” (PO, 9).
A careful reading of Presbyterorum Ordinisto reveals additional names and titles given to ordained priests including: Priests of the New Testament, Dispensers of grace, Witnesses, Co-workers, Good Shepherds, Proclaimers of the Gospel of God, Educators in the Faith, Heralds of the Gospel, Shepherds of the Church, Helpers, Counsellors, Sanctifiers, Nourishers, Brothers, Friends, Defenders of the Faith, and Pastors. Through their ministry the Church strives to make itself current and relevant at every moment through its sacred liturgies, teachings, and dealings with the culture at large.
Whether through sacramental baptism or sacramental ordination, our share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ ought to follow the path that leads to sainthood. The making of a saint, particularly special in the case of John XXIII and John Paul II, so loved and admired by millions, is a wonderful moment in the life of the Church. Like all saints they were nourished in their faith by receiving Jesus daily in the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11). They teach us by word and deed how we too can become saints, reminding us that there can be no Church without the Eucharist and no Eucharist without the ordained priest.
All members of the People of God, ordained and non-ordained, following their baptismal responsibility, must seek tangible ways to promote vocations to the holy priesthood. Like Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, our lives of faith depend on the person of the ordained priest.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit