On Divine Mercy Sunday, in the presence of Pope Francis, his living predecessor Benedict XVI, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world, the Church celebrated the canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s event, the faithful were invited to recall the examples of holiness demonstrated by these 20th century leaders of the Church, as well as their significant historical legacies.
Fr. Robert Barron is the rector of the Chicago Archdiocese’s Mundelein Seminary, and the founder of the online initiative Word On Fire Catholic Ministries. While he was in Rome for the canonizations, he sat down with ZENIT to speak about these two newly-declared saints.
ZENIT: What can we learn from John XXIII and John Paul II about sainthood? Obviously, they had extraordinary lives insofar that they were both popes. At the same time, not all popes are saints…
Fr. Barron: …and not all saints are popes. To be a saint is to be a person of heroic virtue. These are world historical figures, but if that was the qualification for sainthood, then the Little Flower [St. Therese] wouldn’t be a saint, for example.
That’s a good point of meditation. What makes them saints is that they are people of heroic virtue. You’re looking at the cardinal virtues of justice, and prudence, and temperance and courage. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The Church says these men exemplify those virtues in a heroic way.
A couple of examples: think of John XXIII saving upwards of, they think, 24,000 or 25,000 Jews during the Nazi period, all at great risk to himself. Justice and courage are both on pretty strong display there.[Look at] John Paul’s commitment to justice: he’s one of the great spokespersons of the 20th century. He displayed extraordinary courage: as a young kid dealing with the Nazi occupation, as a young priest, dealing with the communists, going to Poland as Pope and speaking truth in the midst of this oppression.
For John XXIII, too, hope is so important. I think calling the council was a great act of hope. He was a Church historian, which means he understood the dark side of the Church’s history very clearly, but he also knew it was guided by the Holy Spirit. He said Vatican II should be a “new Pentecost.” I think his calling forth the Holy Spirit, with great confidence in 1962, was a sign of his tremendous virtue of hope.
Think of John Paul II and love. I think in a thousand years they’ll tell the story of John Paul forgiving the man who tried to kill him. Can there be any more extraordinary act of love than that? You reach out in forgiveness to the man who tried to kill you.
In all these ways, these Popes exemplify this heroic virtue.
ZENIT: Do you think that it’s significant that they are being canonized together?
Fr. Barron: I think it is significant, their being canonized together. I think it has a lot to do with Vatican II. John XXIII calls Vatican II. It’s the great event of the last century for the Catholic Church. John Paul is there as a young bishop, and then archbishop. He helps to write some of the documents. Then as Pope, gives clearly the definitive interpretation of Vatican II.
I don’t know Pope Francis’ mind, but I’m guessing he’s seeing these two figures as the great conciliar figures.
ZENIT: We have hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have come to Rome to witness the canonization of these two Popes. There have been some who have criticized what is the “celebrity” treatment of the Popes, and of John Paul II in particular. From what you’ve seen of these pilgrims here in Rome, would you say this is what’s happening? Are they reacting to him as a celebrity, or is there something deeper?
Fr. Barron: I think it’s deeper. He was a celebrity, and so was John XXIII in his own time. That’s not necessarily bad in itself, being a celebrity. They were well known. They were charismatic – especially John Paul. He was a theatrical person. He knew how to galvanize a crowd.
But I do think people are responding to much more than that. Sanctity is such a need in the world. The world is such a dark place in many ways, and the saints are just beams of light. I think people are drawn to that.
It was neat to see the pictures [of John XXIII and John Paul II] with the halos on them. That’s what always strikes me about a halo: it’s light. It’s a beacon. It’s a sign. They are light in the darkness, and that’s what’s moving to people.
ZENIT: A question that was often posed in the lead up to the canonization was the fact that the Church was declaring John Paul II a saint, even though he had committed certain errors during his pontificate – most notably with regard to his handling of the sex abuse crisis. How can we reconcile this declaration of sainthood within the context of these mistakes?
Fr. Barron: To canonize someone is not to say that every particular judgment they made was the correct judgment. I think you can remark that there was a dark side of John Paul’s papacy, a certain inaction, let’s say, with regard to the sex abuse crisis – certainly in regard to Fr. Maciel and the slowness in responding to it. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that’s a negative feature of his papacy.
But to say someone is a saint doesn’t mean that every move they made was correct, that they were flawless, or that every prudential judgment they made was [the right one]. It’s to look at an overall pattern of heroic virtue. That’s what we’re noticing. I think it’s kind of a red herring to say there was a mistake the Pope made, and therefore he shouldn’t be a saint. I can’t think of any saint, outside the Blessed Mother, who didn’t make some mistakes or have some shadow on their record.
ZENIT: Turning now to John XXIII: In the years following Vatican II, there has been a lot of development, but also a lot of confusion. Where are we right now with regard to how the fruits of the council have developed?
Fr. Barron: I think we’re at the point now of coming to a consolidated understanding of Vatican II. It took a long time, but that’s typical after a council. Especially a council as big as Vatican II – I mean, big in terms of the bishops who were there, but also the size of the documents. Compare Vatican II, for example, to Trent or Vatican I or Chalcedon or Nicea. The documentation is far more extensive. Then, of course, the implementation was accompanied by a certain cultural revolution, and that affected the way it was received. I think it took the long pontificate of John Paul II, and the eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI, to get us to the point to where we could really reach a consolidated understanding of what Vatican II is about.
When you read [the documents as examples of] left, or right, it’s a distorted sort of reading – the “left-wing” Vatican II, followed by an even more radical implementation, followed by a conservative pull-back. That, to me, is a superficial reading.
I think it just took a long time to assess and interpret these documents properly. That’s where we are now. We’re just now taking it in.
ZENIT: There was a period of time following Vatican II when there was a huge drop in vocations, but now we’re seeing an upsurge. How would you assess the decline and subsequent rise in vocations that took place in the post-conciliar period?
Fr Barron: The fall-off in vocations, and priests and nuns leaving their ministry, was a phenomenon of what immediately followed the post-conciliar period. In the United States – in the late 60s to the late 70s, maybe – there was a time when a lot of people left the priesthood, left the convent. I would not subscribe that to Vatican II. I don’t think you can point to anything in the conciliar documents that would lead to that sort of fall-off. I think it was that whole cultural revolution after the council.
Then you see John Paul II, this heroic figure who began to attract young people in a big way. World Youth Day had a huge impact on vocations worldwide. I think John Paul’s heroic example is what revived vocations. It’s still true that people in seminaries now would identify themselves as John Paul II people, even though a lot of them were quite young when he died. It’s his vision, his articulation of what the council meant, his charismatic embrace of evangelization, that really grabbed the attention of young people. I think this counts for this upswing in vocations. It’s not a huge upswing, but it’s there. It’s real.
ZENIT: Would you say that we’ve been comparatively fortunate with regard to the popes we’ve had over the past century or so?
Fr. Barron: If you look at the grand sweep of the Church for the first 2,000 years, we’re going through a “Golden Age” of the papacy.
Go back to the middle of the 19th century with Pius IX who’s now beatified, followed by Leo XIII who’s a massively important figure. He’s followed by Pius X, who’s a saint. Benedict XV is a very important player. The two Pius – XI and XII – very important figures, spiritually. Then Saint John XXIII, Paul VI with all of his spiritual power, and Saint John Paul II. Then there’s Benedict [XVI] who’s at the level of a Church Father, it seems to me.
I don’t think since the first century of the Church’s life have we seen such a concentration of really powerful, saintly figures in the papacy. So, even as we bemoan some of the dark things in the Church, I think we should celebrate the fact that this is a Golden Age of the papacy.