A moment of unity for a divided Church

I’m writing this week from St Peter’s Square. It’s Sunday evening and the piazza is calmer now after the immense crowds of this morning’s canonisations.

People are wandering around, pausing to photograph the giant portraits of the Church’s new saints hanging from the Basilica. Others are sitting on the steps under the colonnade gazing at the magnificence of a floodlit St Peter’s.

It’s been a day of sound and activity. But now, it is quiet. And here in the stillness of the evening there is a chance to reflect on what has happened today. This has been a deeply personal experience for many.

My mind drifts back to another evening I spent in this spot 14 years ago. It was the Feast of the Assumption during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and Pope John Paul II was opening World Youth Day.

I was in the square with several other young people from the Presentation Brothers youth group. A full moon had risen over Rome and we had settled down to listen to the Holy Father’s address.

Midway through the speech, Pope John Paul looked up from his script, paused, and said: “Today I wish to tell you that I believe firmly in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And we believed him.

You might say: “So what? It’s a pretty basic job requirement for a Pope to believe in Christ!” But for the young people in the square that night, John Paul had addressed the great doubt and fear of a postmodern generation: “Is faith real?”

Life experience

John Paul answered with a strong ‘Yes’ and for us he spoke with authority. It wasn’t necessarily the authority of his office but the authority of his life experience. This was a man who, in his youth, had other life options. He could have been an actor, an athlete or an academic. But he chose to follow Christ as a priest. This was the credo of a man who had experienced the evil of two totalitarian regimes and known the pain of personal loss and physical suffering. This credo had credibility. It was the testimony of a Holy Father for what Henri Nouwen called a ‘fatherless generation’.

John Paul finished his talk that night with the words: “Do not let the time the Lord gives you go by as though everything happened by chance”. 

In a postmodern culture of indecision and doubt, he was encouraging belief and certainty. Don’t think we were settling for an easy certainty to avoid the complexity of a complicated world. This was no ‘comfort blanket’ religion. Rather, in an undisciplined world which placed no demands on us, John Paul II was encouraging us to go beyond mediocrity and to use Christ’s self-sacrificing love as the yardstick for our lives.

In a world of great freedom John Paul was preaching great responsibility. A postmodern generation was being offered purpose. And that explains, in part, the tremendous love and loyalty so many feel for this man.

Obviously I have no personal memories of Pope John XXIII but for another generation this was the Pope whose word and witness excited and inspired. I’ve heard many stories describing the exhilaration of those years in the Sixties when the Church set out on a new course of dialogue and engagement with the world.

You don’t hear Vatican II mentioned too often by my generation; and this worries many in the Church. Maybe that’s because we treat it as the air we breathe – although some will argue that the Church hasn’t been breathing the air of Vatican II for decades. 

Today’s double canonisation highlights that in many ways the Polish Pope’s legacy was built on the vision and courage of John. Indeed the ministry of many young Catholics active in the life of the Church today, though inspired by John Paul, has been enabled by John XXIII. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Pope Francis’ decision to canonise both men together seems to be a dramatic call for unity in a polarised Church. He is perhaps seeking to rescue the legacy of both men from those who would reduce them to icons for competing and divisive ideologies.

Some, in both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ camps, have been too ready to caricature and dismiss those who don’t share their vision for the future. This is a real problem in the Church. Take a look at some of the exchanges on some Catholic blogs and websites and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find judgementalism, nastiness and a distinct absence of basic Christian charity.

Francis has done the Church a great service in pointing to the complimentary papacies of these two new saints.


In the silence of St Peter’s it would be nice to think that Sunday last was a moment of Christian unity: a term used chiefly to describe relations between the different denominations but, for now at least, referring to our own Catholic family.

And sitting here Good Pope John’s famous ‘Speech of the Moon’, delivered on the night the Council opened in 1962, comes to mind: “Let us continue to love each other, to look out for each other along the way: to welcome whoever comes close to us, and set aside whatever difficulty it might bring. Let us continue along our path.”

Amen to that.