The new saints: their teachings and lives

Peter Costello examines the written legacies of the Pope saints

The papal teachings of the new saints and the circumstances which lay behind them will now come into greater focus with their canonisation. Both how they lived and what they taught have now become a part of the heritage, not only of the Church, but of humanity. And that heritage finds its expression largely through the medium of the printed word.

St John XXIII – His Encyclicals

In the space available here it would be impossible to discuss all eight of the encyclicals of Saint John XXIII.  But two which impressed themselves on the universal mind at the time they were issued were Mater et Magister, issued in May 1961, which dealt with the nature of Christianity and social progress.

The other was Pacem in Terris, his last encyclical, issued in April 1963, less than two months before his death, which addressed the need to establish universal peace in truth, justice and charity.

The image of the Church as a solicitous mother teaching her children was one of warmth and affection which contrasts with what had so often seemed to be the stern and patriarchal tone of so many Church statements. 

The document spoke of the common good as being the criterion for judgment and that caritas, the disinterested love of others, rather than self-interest, should be “the supreme criterion in economic matters”.

To many in the developed nations, especially in America, some of the passages of the document would have been dismaying. Nevertheless as time has advanced, the profound wisdom of what he wrote, especially in relation to developing nations, still rings true, but has not been learnt from, especially by governments.

Pacem in Terris came at a time when there was (and I speak from personal experience of those days of the Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin wall and the October missile crisis) a real fear of nuclear war, that the USA and Russia would heedlessly plunge the world into annihilation.

The Pope, however, emphasised that the disagreements between nations “should not be resolved by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation.”

He also laid great emphasis on the need to respect and enhance human rights. Again these teachings are of profound consequence, but one can see that they have largely been ignored, even by Catholics, who everywhere are still happy to resolve issue by violence (as in the Argentine, Chile, the Balkans, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland). Pacem in Terris remains a document of the most important consequence.

The Pope concluded with an appeal urging Catholics to assist non-Catholics and non-Christians in political and social aspects of developing modern society. This means, in fact, coming to terms with the vast majority of humanity, as the Pope clearly says, who are not Catholic. We are to work for others, not for our own advantage, but for the benefit of mankind. 


St John Paul II – His Encyclicals

Over the 27 years of his pontificate John Paul II issued 14 encyclicals, the individual importance of which may well depend on your point of view.

Certainly he was seen by many as being an arch-defender of Catholic truth, but in saying this they were happy to take an à la carte view of his encyclicals, emphasising those with a specific doctrinal aspect, often ignoring those with a wider scope.

Evangelium Vitae is emphasised by many because of its condemnation of abortion, but there is a great deal more in it than that, much of which many Catholics, especially those of a more conservative tendency, are happy to ignore.

Given the state of the world, Laborem Excercens might certainly be invoked in these days. It specifically approves of labour over capital, and the priority of the individual and people over material goods. In particular, economism, which has ravaged societies around the world, and materialism are condemned. The Pope addressed the need for a spirituality of work, a thing which still seems to be lacking.

St John Paul II returned to these matters in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1990) and Centesimus Annum (1991). A passage from the latter may well strike home today:

“When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government.”


Biographies of the new saints

The leading biography of St John XXIII is that by Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council (London: Chapman, 1984; revised edition, Fount Paperbacks, 1994).

An abridged edition, as John XXIII: Pope of the Century (Continuum, €17.99 / £14.99) is in print. This biography reflects the outlook of a liberal Catholic of the 1960s. The author, who died in 1994, was a former Jesuit. He was well known as a leading journalist on Church affairs for over 30 years.  The quality of the book is suggested by the fact that it is still available. But the saint’s own book, Journal of a Soul (Image paperback, $17.96 US only), remains the best insight into his spirituality.

As regards St John Paul II the leading biography is that by George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Perennial, €17.99 / $24.99), which achieved worldwide acclaim. But the author’s views are deeply affected by aspects of modern American culture. He would limit the duty of the Church to speak out on social matters and matters of war and peace, and a supports of the neoconservative point of view that has caused such havoc in the post-communist world.

Aspects of the pontificates and the lives of both St John XXIII and St John Paul II remain controversial, and will be the topic of much further inquiry. It is mere piousity to believe that a saint is free of failings and frailties. The whole point of being a saint is that the saint themselves realise these failing and frailties completely, and struggle to overcome them. Sainthood is not an aspect of celebrity culture, but of interior resolution.

It is essential that Catholics read widely and think deeply about the writings and lives of the new saints, but they must do so in a reflective manner. And inevitably they will do so in the light of the developing Church under Pope Francis.

The most recent biography of St John XXIII is by the American Greg Tobin, world-wide director of Alcoholics Anonymous. Entitled The Good Pope: the Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church (HarperOne, €17.99 / £14.99) the book is rather a reprise of familiar material rather than a wholly new enterprise, but it will certainly aid many readers in learning some essential things about the man and the saint.

George Weigel has concluded his biographical accounts of St John Paul II with The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II, the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years and the Legacy (Doubleday, €23.99 / £19.95) – which presents the Polish pontiff as the victor over communism, and a moral model for the future. St John Paul II was a man with a tremendous public presence; the substance of his thought is what will concern future generations.

However, Weigel’s resolutely American, and neoconservative point of view may well jar with many European readers. There are more views in the world than those that emerge from the American academy. European Catholics, especially those in Ireland, should be cautious in taking their views too readily from American commentators.

These books are, of course, far from being the last word. The complex characters of both men will be undoubtedly the subject of other more diverse biographies.

There are special difficulties about writing a papal biography in modern times. The first is that the official papers will be closed off completely. The writer will have to depend on private sources and these may well be speaking out of a determination to affect the views of the writer rather than an urge to tell the full truth.

In fact, the trend of modern biography is away from large full length total life biographies. Increasingly in favour are biographical studies that concentrate on one episode or one particular event, one short period of time. These can then be examined in greater detail than would be possible in a full length biography.

So in the case of the new saints it is likely that Pope John XXIII’s  experiences as a diplomat will receive increasing attention, contrasted with those of Pius XII,  as will the process by which he arrived at the decision to hold a Council.

In the case of St John Paul II his relations with Polish nationalism will certainly be an area for examination. The Solidarity Revolution did not quite turn out as expected by some, nor indeed did the fall of communism. The result was not peace and understanding, but in many areas increased tension of a different kind due to unrestrained nationalism.

In this respect it has to be understood, as mentioned above, that a saint is not held before us as a perfect person. A saint is a person who has been faced by challenges, often very daunting ones, but who has overcome through the heroic virtues which the grace of God has inspired in them.

That at least is the true teaching of the Church. But many Catholics are only too happy to adopt an over-pious devotion, and to ignore those failings, those frailties which all saints are themselves very conscious of, in favour of often saccharine sentimentalisation. This would be a mistake.

The saints provide, through both their teachings and through their lives, models of life because they were often all too human. It is this which adds to the interest of reading both about what they taught and how they lived.

The example of both of pain born with patience is a profound one. The final pilgrimage of St John Paul was observed with feeling by the whole world thanks to television. But there also exists a very significant photograph (it is reproduced in Journal of a Soul) of John XXIII talking to a little girl with leukaemia.

Of this photograph Graham Greene remarked: “He speaks to her with extreme gravity and she listens with the same deep seriousness. It is impossible to say which of them is the elder, which will be first dead. He speaks to her as an equal”.

And therein lies a clue to the reality of holiness. 

The encyclicals of modern Popes can be read online at the Vatican website ( under the indexed names of the various Pontiffs. Printed version can be purchased through Veritas.