THERE simply is no question about it. April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, has no parallel in the history of the Church or of the world. A current pope, Francis I, proclaimed before an immense sea of humanity at St. Peter’s Square and billions around the world glued to their television sets and internet-facilitated gadgets two predecessor popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, “to be saints” and enrolled them “among the saints, decreeing that they be venerated as such by the whole Church” while on the sideline his immediate predecessor, almost shy and remarkably self-effacing, Benedict XVI, stood witness to the occasion. A pilgrim in Rome could not help remarking about two papal “saints in heaven” and another two “at St. Peter’s Square”.
Two recognized saints on the one hand; two potential saints on the other?
Fast forward to today. Beyond the jubilation and the cacophony of praise and criticism from both Catholics and non-Catholics, need we not ask the all-important question: What does the event tell us professed Christians of this day and age? Without pretending to have the last word on the matter, I would like to share a few of my unsolicited thoughts.
One, the Petrine ministry, the other name for the role of Roman Catholic Pontiffs among both Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, is healthy and strong. More than two thousand years after Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter (Kephas) and upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18), Peter still stands in the person of contemporary Roman Pontiffs, contrary winds or ever-loyal following notwithstanding. It is unfortunate that we still hear this name “Roman Pontiff” to call the successor of the Apostle Peter by. But, like the Incarnation has the Word of God inexplicably and irretrievably intertwined with our human nature, the Shoes of the Fisherman are till now inseparable from the cobblestone pathways of Rome. The Vicar of Christ, like his Master, is in the world though not of it. What’s in a name? Faith and Scriptures answer: “Mission”. The Apostle Peter and his successors have a firm foothold in the Eternal City so as to proclaim and usher in eternity to the world, with the Lord’s flock constantly coming in and going forth to drink in the message in order to later spread it from the house tops of today’s humanity. Two papal saints in heaven and two saintly popes on earth is a big statement of Jesus Christ’s unshakable faithfulness to his promise. Peter may have had lapses and falls from grace; but the love of the Master always sustains him with more than enough strength to lift up and guide the faith of the flock as well as the attention of the world on the ways of the Kingdom.
Two, the practice of venerating saints adds to and not detracts from the following of Jesus Christ. Reviled and at times openly called “idolatry” by non-Catholics, the spiritual activity in which and by which Catholics call upon canonized saints to pray for their needs and intentions, mindful of their gifts and charisms while still on earth, is still alive and kicking, if we are to judge from the immense crowds in Rome before, during and after the canonization of the two popes. Even despite misconceptions perpetrated by secular media, such as Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII being “performer of miracles” (it is never the saint but God who does the miracles at the saints’ intercessions, Catholics constantly are compelled insist to their dismay), the faithful freely share their experiences of having recourse to saints’ intercessions and obtaining answers from heaven, miraculous or non-miraculous. Why does this not detract from the following of Jesus Christ? The answer appears so simple and yet so profound to me. The saints, papal or not, reflect to us the many aspects of Jesus Christ and it is to Jesus Christ that they lead their devotees despite appearances.
Three, four popes in one day to me speak of the diversity in unity that is very real in the Body of Christ that the Church is. The Pauline vision is nowhere more pronounced than in the diverse personalities, emphases and orientations of these four past and present Supreme Shepherds of the Roman Catholic Church. The kindly, well-humored “Good Pope John XXIII”, initially dismissed as a short-term transition pope and yet proving himself a revolutionary by convoking Vatican II already amazes any student of history. Place him side by side with the intellectual contemplative yet hugely charismatic Pope John Paul II who both fervently followed up Vatican II reforms and strongly clarified parameters, who traveled more than any pope in history, wrote more encyclicals, canonized more saints, helped bring down communist regimes in Eastern Europe, chastised dictators as well as radical clergy, remained silent when vilified as an arch-conservative and yet loudly denounced injustices and violations of human rights around the globe. It is extremely difficult to not be in awe of these two saints. In addition, who would not be hard put to explain the obviously un-similar personalities of the mild-mannered intellectual, progressive conservative Pope Benedict XVI who courageously and humbly stepped down from the papal throne so as to make way to a down-to-earth pastor named Pope Francis whose vaunted humility and discomfort with the trappings of power is now attracting immense attention and the opportunity to personalize the New Evangelization in the age of Facebook and Twitter? And yet who would ever doubt the unity these Supreme Pastors exhibit in proclaiming Christ and his Kingdom in season and out of season within the orthodoxy and dynamism of the Catholic faith?
The specter of four popes in one day is not about four spiritual leaders grabbing the spotlight in an ephemeral way. It is about the past and present of Christianity converging and continuing to shed light on humanity from the faith of the Apostle Peter.
And the faith of the Apostle Peter is about Jesus Christ who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev 22:13).