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Father Muench Says...

The popes who will become saints

April 9, 2014

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

On Mercy Sunday this year (that is the Sunday after Easter), Pope Francis will canonize two new saints for our Catholic Church. Both are popes of modern times – Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.  In this ceremony of canonization, the Catholic Church officially declares that these two well-known Popes are truly saints.

I remember the day that Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope – taking the name Pope John XXIII.  That was 1985 and I was still in the seminary in Baltimore.  I must admit that, on that day, I knew nothing about him, who he was or what he had done as a priest, bishop and cardinal.  What I did know was that he was rather old to be elected pope; he was 77 years old when elected and, from what I had read, little was expected of him. 

Then he announced his decision to convene an Ecumenical Council – the Second Vatican Council.  We all began to learn more and more about Pope John XXIII.

As I began to learn more about Pope John XXIII, I discovered him as a humble servant of the Catholic Church.  He served as a chaplain in the Italian army as a young priest.  Later, as a bishop, he was a papal diplomat during the World War in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey and, after the war, in France.  Then he was chosen to be the Patriarch of Venice and a cardinal leading to his election as pope. 

His decision to call the Council and his readiness to allow the Council Fathers to act openly truly changed the future of our Catholic Church. He expressed his vision for the Council as an opportunity to throw open the windows of the Church to the present world.  He called it a new Pentecost and, indeed, the Holy Spirit became very active in our Catholic Church through the actions of the Council.

I also learned that Pope John XXIII was a truly holy man.  His talks radiated a deep love of God.  His writings were published and became valuable spiritual reflections.  He was truly dedicated to the following of Jesus and the good of the Church.  I am personally thrilled that he will be canonized a saint.  I am so pleased that Pope Francis made this possible. 

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978 and will be canonized in this same ceremony.  You will all have memories of Pope John Paul.  He traveled to 130 countries during his time as Pope – reaching out to much of the world.  He was a real missionary to all the world.  I remember being so captivated by his energy – especially during his younger years as Pope.  He was elected at 58 years old and his story captivated us all. 

As a young man, during the war years, his studies were suspended. He worked in a quarry and chemical plant and was involved in underground seminary studies.  He vigorously opposed communism – as a priest and bishop – and later as pope.  As a bishop, he was actively involved in the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council.

He caught my attention immediately. I remember the day of his election – I shouted to Father Jerry Bleaux, who was with me then. “we have a Polish Pope.”  I remember the pictures of him striding across the sanctuary at St. Peter’s almost athletically.  We also learned that he was a skier.  I remember attending his Papal Mass at Yankee Stadium and another time at Central Park.  His presence electrified the people.

We began to realize that he was a holy man especially during the time of his long illness.  He remained strong and dedicated to carry on.  I remember having my picture taken with him – standing close to him (along with 40 others) yet, there was something special about his very presence.  Shortly thereafter his health worsened.  We all remember the crowds that came to fill St. Peter’s Square, praying for him.  And we remember the huge crowds that came to simply walk past his casket after his death.  His writings continue to reflect his love of God and his holiness of spirit.

The ceremony of canonization is a very special statement by the Catholic Church that these two well-known popes should be recognized and acknowledged as saints. 

As saints, their lives will be noticed by many – their writings read by many.  All that they did will be an example for all people.

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