Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

September 30, 2013

Canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II

The Vatican has announced the canonization dates for Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II: Sunday April, 27, 2014, the Sunday after Easter. This date is also the worldwide celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast instituted by Pope John Paul II. Find more information on the announcement here.

Brief Biography of Pope John XXII (1881-1963)

Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Roncalli, the fourth in a family of fourteen children. His parents were sharecroppers. In 1904, he was ordained a priest and then served as secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo, Italy. During this period, he wrote a five-volume biography of St. Charles Borromeo. During World War I, he served as a medic and a chaplain and then after the war worked in Rome as the Italian head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Many years of his priestly life were then spent serving as a papal diplomat, most notably to Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and France. In 1953, he was named the patriarch of Venice and elevated to cardinal.

His election after the death of Pope Pius XII was unexpected. Because of his advanced age (a month shy of 77), most observers thought of him as an interim Pope who would not serve long or accomplish much. However, Pope John’s warmth, sense of humor, and kind heart quickly won over the entire world, contrasting sharply with the aristocratic bearing of his predecessor. One of his first official acts was to visit prisoners in Rome telling them, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.” One of his famous jokes involved his response to a question from a reporter, “Holy Father, how many people work in Vatican City?” The Pope responded, “About half of them.”

What surprised most people was John’s assertion that the idea for calling the first Ecumenical Council in ninety years came to him like a ray of blinding light, an inspiration from the Holy Spirit. When he announced the council to a gathering of eighteen cardinals in January of 1959, they were dumbfounded. Days later, they voiced their reservations, but John insisted that the Church lived in a new age. The Catholic Church was no longer just a European community, but a worldwide Church embracing many people. Moreover, the Church needed to dialog with the fast-changing world of politics, economics, science, technology, and so forth. This council would be unlike previous councils which were called in times of crisis and heresy. It would be a pastoral council, one of mercy and hope, one that would reach out to the modern world and invite people around the world to consider the joyfulness of the Gospel. Pope John famously gave this as his reason for the council: “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”

Brief Biography of Pope John Paul II (1920–2005)

When the cardinals met in October of 1978 to elect a new Pope, they chose Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the fifty-eight-year-old Archbishop of Kraków, Poland, the first non-Italian Pope in more than 450 years. As a Pole, he had lived a remarkable life as a survivor of both Nazism in his youth and communist tyranny as an adult. Multi-talented and athletic, Karol was a gifted actor, poet, playwright, and profound philosopher. He was chosen for his youth and his dedication to implementing the principles of Vatican II. The cardinals also thought he would be savvy enough to stabilize a Church that was experiencing problems associated with secularization from without and dissidents from within its ranks.

Karol Wojtyla took the name John Paul II to signal his desire to continue the work of his three predecessors. He was the third-longest reigning Pope in history, behind St. Peter (approximately thirty-five years) and Pope Pius IX (31.6 years). His death on April 2, 2005, ended his twenty-six-year papacy. The massive outpouring of affection for him at the time of his death was unprecedented in history. For many Catholics, he was immediately acclaimed, “John Paul the Great.” This is an honorific title used for only three other Popes in history, Pope Gregory I, Pope Leo I, and Pope Nicholas I. Cardinals in New York and Dublin are among high-ranking clergy who have publicly used the title “the Great” for John Paul II. Millions of admirers of Pope John Paul II viewed him as a faithful and holy Apostle to humanity and one of history’s great figures, due in no small measure to the role he played in the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, thus ending the Cold War.

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