Monday, April 28, 2014

Canonizing Two Thoroughly Modern Men: The Gifts of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope St. John XXIII to the Church

Yesterday on Divine Mercy Sunday, two beloved Popes were canonized in St. Peter's Square -- Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. Both popes believed firmly in ushering the Church into the modern world, Pope John XXIII by calling the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II by working tirelessly to implement those conciliar reforms in a way that did justice to the Church's past and her present. But Pope St. John Paul II will always be closer to my heart.

When I began contemplating conversion to Catholicism in the late 1990s, Pope John Paul II had already reigned for more than 20 years. The JPII generation was on fire with love for Christ and his Church. They were passionately devout, fiercely intelligent, and quoted passages from the original documents of Vatican II with the same fluency an evangelical might cite Scripture. John Paul II's Theology of the Body (or TOB), with its message that our bodies and sex itself were glorious gifts from God, was just becoming the rage. Steeped in this environment and surrounded by these deeply inspiring people, who wouldn't want to become Catholic?

I entered the Catholic Church on the same day as the party celebrating my engagement to Manny, a cradle Catholic of the JPII generation. The day after our wedding in April 2000 was the first Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope John Paul II had just canonized the Polish nun, St. Faustina, who began the Divine Mercy devotion. Saints almost never have feast days on Sundays, since the day of Our Lord's resurrection is considered feast enough. But for Pope John Paul II, the message of God's mercy to a despairing world was so crucial that it deserved to be proclaimed on the first Sunday after Easter Sunday, year after year.

Three years after Manny and I married, John Paul II celebrated the 25th anniversary of his election to the papacy. The young Catholics of New York City were not about to let that pass without throwing a huge party. Our friend Peter McFadden, who had founded a Love & Responsibility group to study John Paul's book of the same name, engineered it all. In Fr. George Rutler's beautiful Manhattan parish, we gathered to celebrate a Mass with Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian chant, and exquisite organ music. Afterwards in nearby Bryant Park, we tried to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records by having a cake with the most number of candles. Unfortunately, the candles flamed so high that they dripped wax all over the cake and Guinness didn't accept our entry. But the sheer energy behind the attempt was electrifying.

No party is complete without a present, of course, so Peter decided we should create a pre-Cana marriage preparation program faithful to the principles of this great Pope in honor of the upcoming anniversary.  When Peter asked who would be willing to create a syllabus, I volunteered. Peter gave me a copy of the Pontifical Council for the Family’s document on Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage, which provided a road map of the topics that the Vatican considered most important for engaged couples to learn. To our surprise, most pre-Cana programs skipped at least half of the recommended topics, so we had to develop a curriculum from scratch. With the approval of the Sisters of Life, who ran the Archdiocesan Family Life Office, my husband and I began teaching classes that year. 

Marriage and family mattered so much to Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII that the prayers issued for their canonizations both mentioned family. The official prayer to St. John XXIII states: "You spoke often of the beauty of the family gathered around the table to share bread and faith: pray for us that once again true families would live in our homes." In even more powerful language, the prayer to St. John Paul II states: "May you bless families, bless each family! You warned of Satan's assault against this precious and indispensable divine spark that God lit on earth. St. John Paul, with your prayer, may you protect the family and every life that blossoms from the family."

Pope Francis' similarly intense concern for marriage and the family is highlighted by his call for an Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which will occur October 5-19, 2014. This extraordinary synod of bishops will address pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelization. Many people are eagerly awaiting the synod's expected pronouncements on annulment, divorce and remarriage, reception of the Eucharist after remarriage, and other contemporary issues plaguing Catholic families today.

The "Francis effect" is drawing many disaffected Catholics back to the Church, but Pope John Paul II -- and Benedict after him -- solidified its core. Pope Francis is attracting people not just to himself but to the modern Church that St. John XXIII initiated and St. John Paul II refined. It is only fitting that Pope Francis was the one to declare his two predecessors as saints in the modern Church that they brought to life.

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