One month ago, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass on the altar above the tomb of St. John Paul II. Our small pilgrimage group had requested a Mass at one of the altars, either in the crypt or in St. Peter’s Basilica itself. We never expected that we would be given this particular altar, and all in the group were rather excited. One of my friends, who is an American serving on the general council of his religious community, asked me how we had arranged it. He had been trying for months through various contacts in the Vatican. I told him how we asked simply for a Mass in the basilica. Of course, he was very surprised that no special arrangements had been made. I was simply thankful to the Holy Spirit for arranging it and giving both the pilgrims and me such an important spiritual opportunity. As we made our way to the altar of St. John Paul, we went by the tomb of St. John XXIII. I hope someday to celebrate a Mass on the altar above his tomb as well. Both are personal heroes of mine because of their efforts to expand the role of all in the Church, especially the laity, which was so central to the charism of the founder of my religious community, St. Vincent Pallotti. In his homily for their canonizations, Pope Francis spoke about the efforts of these two popes in this regard:
John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries.
The renewal and updating of the Church called for by the Second Vatican Council, initiated by St. John XXIII, is central to the work of the New Evangelization as articulated by St. John Paul II. This work continued through the efforts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, especially in the Synod on the New Evangelization, and is finding even greater momentum through the witness of Pope Francis. All of them, along with Blessed Paul VI, the teaching of the Council, and Church leadership in general, have called all of the baptized to engage in greater co-responsibility for the life of the Church and for the work of evangelization.
When Pope Francis canonized St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II together, various pundits, both in Church and secular media, were quick to give their sometimes very simplistic analysis of the message that he was trying to convey. If there was any “message”, I believe that it is a continued or re-commitment to the on-going renewal of the Church in trustful cooperation with the Holy Spirit and in prayerful communion with the saints.
St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were both visionary leaders who put forward programmatic plans for not simply renewal of the Church as an institution, but renewal of all the baptized in faith and holiness who are called to go forth into the world and renew it as well. In 1959, St. John XXIII said, “Profession of the Christian faith is not intelligible without strong, lively apostolic fervor” (Princeps Pastorum, 32). The Second Vatican Council confirmed this understanding in Lumen Gentium through its teachings about the Universal Call to Holiness and the role of all the baptized in the mission of Christ. St. John Paul II was one of the drafters of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) along with the then Rector General of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, Fr. Wilhelm Möhler, S.A.C. St. John Paul taught in his apostolic exhortationChristifideles Laici, which followed the Synod on the Laity in 1987, that
The Second Vatican Council has reminded us of the mystery of this power and of the fact that the mission of Christ – Priest, Prophet-Teacher, King – continues in the Church. Everyone, the whole People of God, shares in this threefold mission’” (14).
Sharing in the mission of Christ is not simply staying within the confines of the church building. Instead, especially in this time of the New Evangelization, all of the baptized are called to recognize that they are followers of the Christ who are sent on mission by him. In fact, Pope Francis even calls the baptized, in Evangelii Gaudium, “missionary disciples” (120).
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and teaches for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on February 4th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online
Reflecting on the Scripture readings for today, February 5th, my mind wandered to the brilliance of the Letter to the Hebrews. We read Chapter 12 verses 18-19, 21-24 with the rich imagery of approaching the “city of the living God” that is the “heavenly Jerusalem” that contains such images as “countless angels in festal gathering” and “the sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel”. These phrases ignite a feeling of grandeur and magnificence! The passage describes an eternal gathering that should not be feared, but embraced.
We have been reading from Hebrews throughout Ordinary Time and will soon begin the Lenten Season. The author of Hebrews, who scholars say was a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian familiar with Platonic philosophy, inspires me. There is much to be said about the background and context of the letter. I would like to reflect on one phrase from Hebrews 12:1-4 that constantly returns to because it is quite an eternal gathering. The words, “so we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” show how to grow in holiness through the example of Christ.
My imagination darts to the scene of all saints gathered together, surrounded in golden light with haloes on their heads. The saints are the witnesses who envelop the throne of God and embrace Jesus’ example of faith. They have run the race of life while keeping their eyes fixed on Christ. The Catechism explains that all the faithful form one body, whose head is Christ. The good of each of the faithful is communicated to the others as a communion of persons (CCC 947). The picture is a reminder of our work together to reach the heavenly Jerusalem and building the Kingdom of God on earth. "Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state - though each in his own way - are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect" (CCC 825, cf. 296). We can join the cloud of witnesses!
The image of the communion of saints reminded me of the book, Cloud of Witnesses, edited by Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday. It is a collection of the stories of modern-day saints and their influence on faith and work for justice. The collection includes Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Oscar Romero. These people are testaments to the faith along with countless others. They characterize the words in Hebrews 12, “For the sake of the joy that lay before him Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” Enduring criticism, injustice, suffering and loss, these witnesses were confident that they would discover the joy of the “city of the living God.” Although we are not celebrating the feast of All Saints’ Day, we can be reminded of the stories of the saints and how they ran the race. Lent is a race in itself to the tomb of Christ, in hope that he will rise and we will be renewed!
Matthew Kelly provides encouraging words for this Lent that will aid in your race as a witness of Christ and “saint-to-be.” He proposes that you have your “Best Lent Ever” with his daily reminders and reflections that go beyond giving up chocolate and sweets. We are a part of that cloud, aiming to become closer to Jesus in our sacrifices during Lent. As we approach Lent, how are we witnesses to what we believe in? How are we witnesses even if our lives don’t reflect the life that we imagine for ourselves? I invite you to check out this plan and see if it is the right fit for your 40 days!
After touching on the description of this beautiful cloud in Hebrews and expanded on later in chapter 12 today, I would like to close with the message of remembering the little things. Remembering to be kind to a stranger or stick around for a conversation instead of heading home, taking a walk for 30 minutes and sitting in silence in a chapel, will help brighten your light like the haloes of the saints. By being intentional with your presence and time you are becoming your best self! We are witnesses of Jesus and his work simply because we embrace him. The little things are what build the grandeur and magnificence of the heavenly Jerusalem. Keep smiling as you run the race!
Sophie Jacobucci is a 2014 graduate of the Echo Program at the University of Notre Dame currently living in Denver, CO.