Men of our time, for our time

Saints show us that we are all called to practise heroic virtue even when life seems too tough

When our boys were small, one of them had a collection of little books each telling the story of a particular saint. He loved them and would read them often. I, too, read about Therese of Lisieux, Bernadette and others, when I was little.

Readers may well have similar memories. The stories we were told were of hardship heroically lived, but essentially they were stories of beautiful lives, of pain was borne with grace and simplicity. There is an essence of truth in all this. The reality, however, is that many, if not all of those lives were cruel, terribly hard, and that these people suffered often interminably and almost inexplicably. It is how they bore it that distinguishes them.

As we rejoice at the canonisations of two men who were Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, it can be tempting to look at the glory that was these men; to remember the courage, charisma and dynamism of John Paul II and the legendary gentleness, humility and unique vision of John XXIII especially in establishing, against all the odds, Vatican II.

John XXIII was a Pope of another day, carried aloft by pall bearers like a medieval king, ornately robed, and unrecognisable as the little boy he once was, as the fourth of 13 children of share croppers in Lombardy. He was Pope for just five years, but left a legacy when enriches the Church today.

Have you heard of a Pope who visited seriously ill children at the Bambino Gesù Hospital and sick adults at the Santo Spirito Hospital; the Pope who visited Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, where he told the inmates: “You could not come to me, so I came to you”; who visited a school for juvenile delinquents in Rome telling them “I have wanted to come here for some time”, who frequently quietly walked out of the Vatican late at night to walk the streets of Rome and be with the people? That was John XXIII.

Greatest contribution

Perhaps his greatest contribution was to give a voice to the Holy Spirit through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, using a democratic, scholarly and faithful process to discern and to articulate the understanding of the place, role  and  functions  of the Church in the world, as for example, in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, “the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served.”

We hear often that the Church has lost the inspiration of Vatican II, has failed to give effect to it.  There may be some truth in this, but Churches, because they comprise people, are inevitably the product of their time. It is the essential truth which the Church teaches which is unchanging. If we look back on the Church of those days in the 1960s it was a very different Church. It has changed much.

We are the Church. If it has failed, we have to ask ourselves have we failed. Of course we have. Most of us do not live our faith as we are called to live it. Yet we try. When we fall we must just get up and try again. So it is with the Church. It has lost the way over the centuries. Yet for all that the Holy Spirit guides it forward if we and our Church but listen to his voice.

John Paul II was once a little small town Polish boy who lived through German occupation. He lost all his immediate family when he was very young, once reflecting, “At 20, I had already lost all the people I loved”. This man went on to lead the world’s Catholics for almost 27 years. For many of us he was an iconic figure: tall, imposing, charismatic, energetic, but most of all an intensely spiritual figure, who survived and forgave an assassination attempt, and who lived his final illness with grace and fortitude.

Unique grasp

He had a unique grasp of the world in which he was chosen to lead the Church. His strategy, which gave a face and a modern voice to the Church in the world was very much the product of his understanding of the teachings of Vatican II.

He worked tirelessly for justice and peace across the world.

It was he who brought together representatives of 120 faith traditions to pray and fast together in Assisi in 1986. Above all, perhaps it was he who tried to deal with the wrongs of the past, who apologised for so much of the Church’s wrongdoing over the centuries, including the treatment of Galileo; the Inquisition and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation; some Catholics’ involvement with those responsible for the African slave trade; the wrongs done to women; the failures of many Catholics during the Holocaust, and who made the early apology for clerical sexual abuse.

There are those who criticised John Paul II for his apologies, but they are reflective of what we are called to as Catholics – that process of acknowledging wrong done in order to recognise what happened, to try to make amends and to seek forgiveness.

As we reflect on the purpose of canonisation, of declaring men and women as ‘people of heroic virtue’ we seek the relevance of their lives to ours and ponder the model that they present to each of us.

We must look beyond the glamour and the public story, and reflect on the inner lives of these men, recognising their humanity.  If we try to present them as saints who always did what was right, we deny their heroic virtue.

No, these men were not perfect, but they are of our time, and whilst we might talk critically of that which they did not do, we should step back and reflect on what they did and on their relationship
with Jesus, in whose name they did it.

Holiness in our lives

The papacy must be, from a human perspective, such an immense, lonely and challenging role. No one man can achieve everything. Mistakes are inevitable, but the lives of these two men are very different examples to us all of  how we might try to answer the call to holiness in our own lives.

They were lives lived in prayer. They visibly struggled to do what is right in the name of the Lord. Incessantly they did the work of the Lord. They rejoiced in the wonder of the world in which we live, and the gift of faith.

They faced illness and death with courage. John Paul II has been criticised for holding on to the papacy when he was not well enough to keep control of the Roman Curia (which should not need to be controlled!) and yet in his dying he bore powerful witness to the dignity and sanctity of human life, and that is what we all are all called to do: to practise heroic virtue even when life just seems too tough, and to be faithful to the son of God whose death and resurrection we have just celebrated.

John Paul II’s final words on leaving Ireland in 1979 are still relevant today as he is canonised: “In the name of the Lord I exhort you to preserve the great treasure of your fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church…be faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood and to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”