The Risky Popes

The cover of a Catholic magazine recently referred to the two popes to be canonized on Sunday, April 27, as “The Odd Couple”.  Now, the magazine cover did the trick, in that it caught my attention and elicited a reaction.  The reason that these two are seen as an odd couple is that, in the mind of many, Pope John XXIII opened the door of the Second Vatican Council, seen as a liberalizing of the Church, and Pope John Paul II tried to reign in what he saw as the excesses of the Council’s interpretation and its quite vague “spirit”.

My reaction to this fairly common and superficial reading of the history of the Church was to ask myself the question, What do these two different popes have in common?  Why would they be canonized together?

And the word that came to my mind was “risk”.  I will explain how risk played out in each of these popes’ lives, but first we must link the word risk to another word: “freedom”.  What do risk and freedom have to do with each other?  Let us think of the experience of falling in love, of saying to someone for the first time, “I love you!”  What a risk!  It is possible that the other person does not feel the same way about me.  It is possible that the other is not ready to say those words back to me.  It is possible that this “revelation” of what is in me could scare the other person, or be misunderstood, or could lead to a lot of heartache and pain.

Why is the declaration of my love for another person a risk?  Because the other person is free, free to love me back, free not to love me back, free not to live up to the demands to which love commits us.  It is the freedom of love that our two popes risked, when the “put themselves out there” in proposing the Gospel, which is the greatest declaration of love that could ever be given.

John xxiii

The risk of John XXIII: calling the Second Vatican Council.  In the history of the Church, Councils have been called mainly to deal with grave problems that have arisen, points of doctrine that need clarification because they have been attacked.  Think of Arius (Christ is a creature, not God) and the Council of Nicea in 325 (we still say the Creed today).  Think of the Protestant Reformations and the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century.

John XXIII called a Council not to deal with any particular issue, not to settle any particular doctrinal question, but rather, “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (Speech at the Opening of Vatican II)  John XXIII saw the need to teach the faith, the same Catholic faith as ever, in a new and more convincing manner.  The way to do this, according to John XXIII, was not by changing things all around, but by finding a mode of expression that could be understood in our time.

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

The difference was to move from a defensive position, taking refuge in “being right”, to a position of proposing the faith so that it could be understood and accepted in a world that was drifting farther and farther away from the Church.  Some say that John XXIII was too optimistic about our ability to propose the faith (without changing it) and about the openness of the world to being affected by this new transmission.  But he set us on a path, and it is precisely the path of risk, of proposing the revelation of the love of God to us in Jesus Christ, of proposing that love to the freedom of a world that may reject, may misunderstand, may persecute…but may accept it!

Illuminated by the light of this council, the Church—we confidently trust—will become greater in spiritual riches and, gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up-to-date where required, and by the wise organization of mutual cooperation, the Church will make men, families and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.

I hope the way that John XXIII presents the Council sounds familiar to us, because it is the greatest legacy of Vatican II.  I recommend the Pope’s speech, called “Mother Church Rejoices”, to everyone.  Here is a link:

JP-II-wizerunek blogoslawionego

The risk of John Paul II: World Youth Day.  It seemed like the risk of John XXIII did not “pay off”, that the world had said NO to the invitation that the Second Vatican Council wanted to propose to them.  The hemorrhage of Catholics from the Church continued, and even sped up, in the years after Vatican II.  Many priests and nuns left their vocation, and many people drifted away from the practice of their faith.  Inside the Church, even, many people did not get John XXIII’s distinction between the teachings of the Church (which cannot change) and the way of proposing the faith (which can, and must change, throughout history).  They wanted to change the teachings of the Church, to be more “up to date”.

And then came John Paul II.  Among the many risks that the Polish Pope took and invited the Church to take, I want to focus on the World Youth Days.  I had the privilege of attending two World Youth Days with John Paul II (Rome and Toronto), and have watched with joy how they have continued to take on such an important place in the mission of the Church in our time.

What was the risk?  In a world where young people seem to have no desire for what the Church proposes, where they continue to leave the Church like it was on fire, John Paul II invited them to come to Rome for a celebration of faith.  Who would come?  Would it just prove that the Church had been overly optimistic to believe that the faith could still awaken people?

On Palm Sunday in 1984, 300,000 young people came to Saint Peter’s Square at the invitation of the Pope.  On that occasion, he said to them, “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering her today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values?  Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”  This “counting on” the youth, “betting” on their freedom is the experience of risk, which is the way that love grows, not just for the young, but for any of us.  It was that first experience that launched the World Youth Days.


John Paul II would reflect years later, in 2002 at the World Youth Day in Toronto, about the risk he took, and the amazing response of the young to his invitation:

When, back in 1985, I wanted to start the World Youth Days… I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people. This evening, together with you, I praise God and give thanks to him for the gift bestowed on the Church through the World Youth Days. Millions of young people have taken part, and as a result have become better and more committed Christian witnesses.

The vision of John XXIII, about a new way of proposing the Church’s faith, has taken flesh in a remarkable way in the World Youth Days of John Paul II, and in the worldwide “project” and call for a New Evangelization, which is new in ardor, method, and expression, not in content.

The risk of Christ: the Cross.  The content of the Christian proclamation is “Christ, and Him crucified,” as Saint Paul says.  To take a risk out of love is nothing more than to embrace the Cross of Christ.  Christ “handed Himself over to us” without any guarantee of what our response would be.  This love of God has been subject to so much derision, misunderstanding, and rejection throughout history and in our own day.  But it has also been accepted, and has born fruit in our hearts in beautiful ways!  God thought the risk worth it, because “there will be more joy in Heaven over one person who repents than over 99 who (think they) have no need of repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

The content of Christianity, the love of God incarnate, also indicates to us a method: risk, freedom, love.  Of course, these realities look different at different times in history.  Pope Francis canonizes two men who show us what the “risk of love” looks like in our time.  These men are saints, not so that we can admire them as museum pieces, but so that we too may risk in love for the good of the world.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us.


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