While this act of Pope Benedict truly stands out as an act of a holy man, this is far from the only example of faith from a Roman Pontiff. As the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints, it provides a moment to reflect on a few other Popes, especially in the twilight of a year which saw two Popes canonized and another beatified by Pope Francis.
When Cardinal Giuseppe Roncalli entered the conclave of 1958, it is famously asserted that he had already booked his train ticket back to Venice – for he never expected to be elected by the College of Cardinals. Yet, when elected he chose the name John, partly because of John the Evangelist, the beloved of the Lord. Just the great apostle had done, St. John XXIII, too, laid himself at the service of Christ. When he first began talking about convening the Second Vatican Council, many of his contemporaries doubted it would ever occur. Nevertheless, knowing he was trying to fulfill God’s will, the pope persisted and opened the council on October 11, 1962. This was just one instance out of so many that showed what kind of person “Good Pope John” strove to be. He acted not for ovations for himself, but rather for the glory of God. In December 1963, President Lyndon Johnson awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to John XXIII. The President remarked, “He was a man of simple origins, of simple faith, of simple charity. In his exalted office he was still the gentle pastor…His goodness reached across temporal boundaries to warm the hearts of men of all nations and of all faiths.”
One of John XXIII’s closest friends was Cardinal Giovanni Montini. Upon his election a Pope Paul VI, he continued the work of his predecessor in overseeing Vatican II. If humility and surrendering to God’s plan are signs of sanctity, then two moments stand out in the pontificate of the man now called “Blessed.” In 1963, at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Blessed Paul VI removed his tiara and placed it on the alter – a symbolic act showing that the pope not only gave up claims to temporal power on earth, but also yielded fully to the will of the Lord in heaven. Another touching example is his steadfastness after issuing his most famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae. In it, the pope reiterates the Church’s teaching on marriage and denunciation of artificial birth control. Though his words were well received in some parts of the world, the reaction was quite negative. Yet, Blessed Paul VI knew that he was reaffirming ultimate truths and that no matter the criticism, his faith would see him through.
Modern history’s second longest papacy came soon after Paul VI. St. John Paul II, JPII, John Paul the Great – no matter what the title, the sentiment is the same. The faithful witnessed a saint walking among them. His magnificent sanctity was seen exquisitely in December of 1983. Two days after Christmas, the pope travelled to Rebibbia prison to meeting with Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate the pontiff just two years before. During the meeting, John Paul again forgave his would-be-assassin. Years later, the Italian government pardoned Agca at the pope’s urging. This episode, too, was an example of the great faith of the Bishop of Rome. Not only did he imitate Christ’s actions two-thousand years ago, but he also gave a great model for the present day faithful. If a man could humble himself to forgive another man for trying to kill him, all the more people should forgive each other for the smaller transgressions in life.
Many people consider themselves lucky to attend a papal event, watch the pope pass by them in an open vehicle, or even to just hear the pope at a Sunday Angelus. Indeed, so many others never get the opportunity to come in close contact with the Vicar of Christ. Nevertheless, a priest once said that these holy men are now even closer to the faithful than ever before because they number among the saints in heaven. The Catechism reminds us, “the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church…those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us” (CCC 955-6). By asking for their intercession and following their example, the faithful are led home to the Father in heaven and can number among the Communion of Saints.
For more information, check out the Catholic Apostolate Center's Paul VI and our Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII Resource Pages!
Victor David is a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.