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Team Aleteia



Two Saintly Popes

AP Photo/Dominco Stinelles

How John Paul II and John XXIII modeled virtue.

Turning to the theological virtues, let me say just a word about Roncalli’s faith and his hope.  Anyone who reads John XXIII’s spiritual diary called Journal of a Soul is struck by the late Pope’s simple and profound faith.  Prayer structured his day, from the time he was a young seminarian to the end of his life.  Rosary, benediction, novenas, frequent retreats, confession, prayers to favorite saints, Eucharistic adoration, and of course the Mass were absolutely fundamental.  His episcopal motto—Obedientia et Pax­ (Obedience and Peace) signaled his abiding faith that the Holy Spirit spoke unambiguously through his religious superiors.  He consistently read his life through the lens of revelation, and that is the virtue of faith.

Pope John XXIII also exhibited the virtue of hope to a heroic degree, and the best evidence for this is the greatest of his public acts, namely, his summoning of the Second Vatican Council.  Roncalli was a church historian by training, and it was precisely his acquaintance with the roiled ecclesiastical story—involving much stupidity, sin, and deep corruption—that convinced him of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church across the centuries.  He knew in his bones that, despite all human attempts to destroy it, the Church had prevailed and would prevail, because the Spirit was present to it.  And this gave him hope. Upon becoming Pope in 1958, John XXIII resolved to make the Church that he loved a more apt vehicle for the proclamation of Christ to modernity.  Hence he called a council of the all the bishops of the Catholic world.  He said that he wanted this great gathering to be “a new Pentecost,” an occasion for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Many pundits and experts, both inside and outside the Church, strongly urged him not to undertake such a daunting project, but he pressed ahead, precisely because of his radiant hope.

And now to John Paul II.  As all of his biographers remind us, Karol Wojtyla came of age at one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century.  When he was 19 years old and just commencing his university career, the Nazis rolled through his native Poland and instigated a reign of terror over the country.  Almost immediately, the conquerors decapitated Polish society, killing the intelligentsia outright or sending them to concentration camps.  All distinctive forms of Polish culture were cruelly suppressed, and the church was actively persecuted. Young Wojtyla displayed heroic courage by joining the underground seminary run by the Cardinal of Krakow and by forming a small company of players who kept Polish literature and drama alive.  Many of his colleagues in both of these endeavors were killed or arrested in the course of those terrible years of occupation.  Sadly, the Nazi tyranny was replaced immediately by the Communist tyranny, and Fr. Wojtyla was compelled to manifest his courage again.  In the face of harassment, unfair criticism, the threat of severe punishment, etc., he did his priestly work, forming young people in the great Catholic spiritual and theological tradition.  Even as a bishop, Wojtyla was subject to practically constant surveillance (every phone tapped; every room bugged; his every movement tracked), and he was continually, in small ways and large, obstructed by Communist officialdom.  And yet he soldiered on.  Of course, as Pope, he ventured into the belly of the beast, standing athwart the Communist establishment and speaking for God, freedom, and human rights.  In doing so, he proved himself one of the most courag
eous figures of the twentieth century.

That Karol Wojtyla was a man who exhibited the virtue of justice to a heroic degree is impossible to contest.  Throughout his papal years, John Paul II was the single most eloquent and persistent voice for human rights on the world stage.  In the face of a postmodern relativism and indifferentism, John Paul took the best of the Enlightenment political tradition and wedded it to classical Christian anthropology. The result was a sturdy defense of the rights to life, liberty, education, free speech, and above all, the free exercise of religion.  More persuasively than any other political figure, east or west, John Paul advocated for justice.

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