Saint John Paul II, Alive Among the Saints

The great Polish pope constantly emphasized the universal call to holiness as demonstrated in the lives of the saints.

At the outset of his Petrine ministry and several times thereafter, Pope Wojtyla told us that his pontificate was dedicated to the faithful interpretation and implementation of the Second Vatican Council. He also told us that central to the renewal of Vatican II is the universal call to holiness. “[T]his call to holiness is precisely the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring a renewal of Christian life based on the Gospel” (Christifideles Laici, 16).

The Jubilee of the Year 2000 was the occasion for him to reassert: “Holiness…has emerged more clearly as the dimension which expresses best the mystery of the Church. Holiness, a message that convinces without the need for words, is the living reflection of the face of Christ” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 8). In keeping with his constant exhortation to read and to study the texts of Vatican II, he appealed to all to “rediscover the full practical significance of Chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, dedicated to the ‘universal call to holiness.’”

“[T]he heart of holiness is love” (Ecclesia in America, 30), that is, participation in divine life in and through Christ’s paschal charity, which is the soul of the apostolate, the inner dynamism of all ministry, apostolate, service, and mission. “[T]he call to the mission derives, of its nature, from the call to holiness” (Address of May 15, 1998). At the same time, holiness is the ultimate goal of the Church’s activities. For this reason, “all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 30). “[I]n the life of the Church every call to action is a call to holiness” (Address of May 3, 1984).

“Now, no less than in the past, the call to holiness must be the chief concern of all the Church’s members” (Ad limina address of May 26, 1992). This is the primary way of participation in the life and mission of the Church, the foundation for every other vocation, without which ecclesiastical activity is deprived of its vital principle. Holiness is the key to the New Evangelization.

Evangelization in the third millennium must come to grips with the urgent need for a presentation of the Gospel message which is dynamic, complete, and demanding. The Christian life to be aimed at cannot be reduced to a mediocre commitment to “goodness” as society defines it; it must be a true quest for holiness. We need to re-read with fresh enthusiasm the fifth chapter of Lumen Gentium, which deals with the universal call to holiness. Being a Christian means to receive a “gift” of sanctifying grace which cannot fail to become a “commitment” to respond personally to that gift in everyday life. It is precisely for this reason that I have sought over the years to foster a wider recognition of holiness, in all the contexts where it has appeared, so that Christians can have many different models of holiness, and all can be reminded that they are personally called to this goal. (Letter to Priests, Mar 25, 2001)

Meditations on the saints

An often-overlooked aspect of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate is the numerous apostolic letters he wrote on the saints: St. Stanislaus, St. Basil, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Benedict, St. Augustine, St. Vladimir, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. John of the Cross, St. Ambrose, St. Joseph, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. An entire encyclical was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and another to the great apostles to the Slavs, St. Cyril and St. Methodius.

Following the sanctoral cycle in his homilies, John Paul enriched us with meditations on the saints of both the Old and the New Testaments. He made the faith of the apostles, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, St. Mary Magdalene, and many others come alive for us. His fascination was always with the interior mystery of the saints’ freedom, their conscience, their faith, and their love. He showed us how by faith they discovered in Jesus Christ the definitive meaning of life, namely, the love of God that Christ reveals and thereby also reveals man to himself. He also showed us the genuinely catholic—that is, universal—nature of holiness, which transcends national boundaries, race, ethnicity, culture, and historical epochs.

Add to this the extraordinary number of beatifications (1,340) and canonizations (483) by John Paul II, and his repeated invitation to respond to the call to holiness (at least 112 times), and it is easy to understand why Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints from 1998-2008, said:

The valuation of holiness, both at the theological as well as the pastoral level, has always been, from the beginning of his pontificate, one of the foundations of his Petrine ministry…. The Pope also says that the first duty of pastors is to inspire holiness in the faithful…. This is why I think that, deservedly, this Pope will also pass into history as the Pope of holiness.

Clearly, the Polish Pope was committed to keeping the memory of the saints alive in the Church’s consciousness. In this he is in line with the prophets of the Old Testament, who kept reminding the chosen people to be mindful of God’s marvelous works of liberation. The paschal mystery of Christ is the definitive marvelous work of God, and it can never be cut off from its fruit, the Holy Church. To call to mind the paschal mystery, especially to celebrate it in the Eucharist, necessarily entails calling to mind the Church, the Bride of Christ for whose sanctification He gave Himself up (see Eph. 5:25-26).

In this light, the saints stand in relation to the paschal mystery as Jerusalem to God’s marvelous works of the Old Covenant. In both cases there is a strict causal relation. For Jewish faith, Jerusalem is the enduring evidence of God’s saving actions and fidelity to the covenant. To forget Jerusalem is to forget God’s marvelous deeds. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (Ps. 137:5-6). The splendor and beauty of Jerusalem are God’s gift, the proof of the efficacy of his covenantal love.

The Church is the perfect fulfillment of Jerusalem typology. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the perfect personification of the Church. As she herself foretold, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:49). In her and in the saints “the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her” (CCC, 828). In faith the Church perceives a direct causal link between the paschal mystery and the transformation of the human condition that becomes manifest in the lives of the saints. They “are living proof of the fulfillment of [Christ’s] promise, and they encourage the belief that this is possible in the most difficult hours of history” (Homily of October 23, 1999).

What St. Wojtyla said to the faithful of the Czech Republic applies to the universal Church: “Your Christian history…is not over. Your saints are not silent…. Your saints are alive. They are the guarantors of your past and of your future” (Homily of April 21, 1990). They are guarantors because they are proof of the efficacious and faithful love of God, who is the “master of history” (General Audience of May 23, 2001). The whole meaning of the Jubilee Year 2000 rested on this cause-effect relation between Christ and his holy Church: “[I]f the Great Jubilee commemorates the Incarnation of the Word in history, the saints are those brothers and sisters who constitute a sort of extension of this mystery, by virtue of their great docility to the Holy Spirit” (Address of May 17, 2000).

The reason is that the saints are proof of the efficacy of God’s love. Their fidelity, heroic virtues, apostolic zeal, and often their martyrdom are irrefutable evidence of the transformation of the human condition by God’s grace, and thus of God’s fidelity to the covenant that He made, in Christ, with the Church. They are models of imitating Christ and of loving the Church as He did, laying their lives down in love and service by embracing the vocation that constitutes God’s plan of love for them.

The example of Pope St. Pius X

It is as though Pope St. Wojtyla was inspired by the convictions and motives of his predecessor, Pope St. Pius X, regarding the importance of remembering the saints. This other pope-saint of the 20th century told us why he so often taught about the saints. The following are excerpts from his encyclical, Editae Saepe, of May 26, 1910.

Sacred Scripture records the divine word saying that men will remember the just man forever, for even though he is dead, he yet speaks (cf. Ps. 111:7; Prov. 10:7; Heb. 11:4). Both in word and deed the Church has for a long time verified the truth of that saying. She is the mother and the nurse of holiness, ever renewed and enlivened by the breath of the Spirit Who dwells in us (Rom. 8:11). She alone conceives, nourishes, and educates the noble family of the just. Like a loving mother, she carefully preserves the memory of and affection for the saints. This remembrance is, as it were, a divine comfort which lifts her eyes above the miseries of this earthly pilgrimage so that she finds in the saints “her joy and her crown.” Thus she sees in them the sublime image of her heavenly Spouse. Thus she shows her children in each age the timeliness of the old truth: “For those who love God all things work together unto good, for those who, according to his purpose, are saints through his call” (Rom. 8:28). The glorious deeds of the saints, however, do more than afford us comfort. In order that we may imitate and be encouraged by them, one and all the saints echo in their own lives the saying of Saint Paul, “I beg you, be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:16).

By commemorating certain saints, Pope St. Pius intended to treat “those points of Christian doctrine and morals found in the example and teaching of these saints which We thought were best suited to our times.” This is all ordered to the restoration all things in Christ, which he took as the theme of his pontificate.

As We have already mentioned…, We are of the opinion that the shining example of Christ’s soldiers has far greater value in the winning and sanctifying of souls than the words of profound treatises. We therefore gladly take this present opportunity to teach some very useful lessons from the consideration of the life of another holy pastor [Saint Charles Borromeo] whom God raised up in more recent times and in the midst of trials very similar to those We are experiencing today.

Echoes of these lines abound in Pope St. John Paul II’s numerous homilies on the occasion of his many beatifications and canonizations. These homilies constitute one of the great legacies of his pontificate. They tell us what he thought about the contemporaneity of the saints. In them he introduces us to the saints’ interior life of prayer, their apostolic zeal, their embracing of suffering, their fidelity to their vocation, their cooperation with the Holy Spirit, their love of Sacred Scripture, their commitment to communion with the Church, their love for the poor, and above all their devotion to the Eucharistic Lord and to his Virgin Mother. Now he takes his place among the saints that the Church of the future will remember as a model of holiness and Christian virtue, as evidence of the transforming power of God’s grace.

Special proof of God’s action in the world

This remembering of the saints is no merely human act. “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory” (CCC, 1099). The promised Spirit assures that the Church’s faith will never fail. She will never cease to celebrate the Eucharist to perpetuate the memory of the most marvelous of all of God’s marvelous works, redemption in Christ through his paschal mystery. And by the power of the Spirit within her she will never cease to recall the saints who are the proof of the efficacy of that love by which, in Christ, God loved us “to the end” (John 13:1).

“The saints are a special proof of God’s action in the world” (Homily of June 10, 1989). Is it an accident that, precisely at the juncture in history at which secularism, materialism, and a fascination with science and technology have eclipsed the awareness of God and of man’s transcendent origin and end, the Church’s living memory should prompt the Church to call to mind the two great truths about the Queen of all Saints? With the solemn definitions of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (1854) and her Assumption (1950), the Church recalled and continues to bear witness that God intervenes to direct history to the fulfillment of his plan and that man’s final end and fulfillment are themselves transcendent, beyond this world. Precisely when rationalism and empiricism have run headlong to their inescapably logical conclusion of excluding God from human affairs and leaving man all alone, restricting the horizon of his aspirations to that of earthly history and activity, the Church responds with the prophetic remembering of faith that is the Second Vatican Council, and its great herald, Pope St. John Paul II: Mary and the saints prove that man is not deceived when he detects within himself aspirations for eternal life and a longing for communion with God.

The Catechism quotes Pope St. John Paul II: “‘The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.’ Indeed, ‘holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal’” (CCC, 828). Clearly, Pope St. John Paul II believed that and took it heart. The realization that God is the primary actor in history and in the Church’s life did not prevent John Paul from acting on his own responsibility to do his part. The extraordinary, even heroic, balance in his life of prayer and pastoral activity is certainly a hallmark of his particular path to holiness. He lived what he wrote about St. Augustine:

On the other hand, Augustine insists on the necessity of grace, which is the same thing as the necessity of prayer. To those who said that God does not command what is impossible, and that therefore grace is not necessary, he replied that “God does not command what is impossible; but when He commands, He exhorts you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot do,” and God gives help so that the command becomes possible, since “He does not abandon us unless we abandon Him first.” (Augustinus Hipponensum, II, 4)

A model of holiness

One practical way to venerate Pope St. John Paul II is to read and to live what he said to the bishops of the United States about the relation of prayer to apostolic activity in his ad limina address of June 10, 1998.

He lived what he taught, imitated the saints, and became a model of what it means to be a holy bishop today. We are assured of his intercession for us, that by venerating him we are led to imitate his virtues and to join with him in the eternal adoration of the one and ever-living God and the Lamb who was slain. Throughout his 26-year pontificate, the Church—all of us—prayed for him in every sacrifice of the Mass. From now until Christ returns in glory he remains united to us in the Communion of Saints through the Eucharist, to which he unites his intercessions “for our good and the good of all His holy Church.”

St. Wojtyla lived the graces that are wonderfully conveyed in the exhortation to deacons at the time of their ordination: “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” This is that personal integrity of life—of thought, intention, and action—that all men seek, which is only possible by the redemptive graces of Jesus Christ. The Church, St. John Paul II told us on numerous occasions, is an “expert in humanity,” and the lives of the saints confirm this. The saints—and his own holiness—are God’s answer to the Polish Pope’s prayer:

And you, O Christ, the only Head and Savior, draw all your members to yourself. Unite them and transform them in your love, so that the Church may shine with that supernatural beauty which is resplendent in the saints of every era and nation, in the martyrs, in the confessors, in the virgins and in the countless witnesses to the Gospel! (Homily of June 18, 2000)

“[T]he saints are in the Church and for the Church to make her holiness shine out and to extend to the very ends of the earth and the end of time the work of Christ, the one Savior” (Letter of September 8, 2003). “The lives of the saints are a testimony and a proof of the divine origin of peace” (General Audience of May 29, 1991)—that peace that all men seek.

The saints are the great apologia for the Church. Their lives constitute “a message that convinces without the need for words.” They are the created beauty in the universe that points to and draws us to the transcendent and subsisting Beauty of God Himself. They are the splendor and glory of God, and this correlates to what Pope St. John Paul II told us God’s chief attribute in relation to us is, namely, his mercy. Glory is the effect of God’s holiness, which is his merciful love. Conversion, then, because it is “the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world” (Dives in Misericordia, 6), is the glory of God, the beauty of men and women cooperating with God in the rebuilding goodness in themselves and in the world.

Pope St. John Paul II incessantly echoed God’s own call to holiness and to conversion, God’s appeal to entrust ourselves in faith to his transforming love. “[F]aith, in its deepest essence, is the openness of the human heart to the gift: to God’s self-communication in the Holy Spirit” (Dominum et Vivificantem, 51). This faith in God’s love sets us free (see John 8:32) and overcomes all fear that resulting from doubting God’s love (see 1 John 4:16-18). He lived this faith, and his canonization reinforces for us the power of the initial theme of his pontificate: “Be not afraid!”

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About Douglas Bushman 18 Articles
Douglas Bushman is Director of Parish Formation and Mission at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, MN. He is well-known as past director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas and for his courses on Ecclesiology, Catholic Spirituality, John Paul II, Vatican II, Pastoral Theology, and the New Evangelization. He is the author of The Theology of Renewal for His Church: The Logic of Vatican II’s Renewal In Paul VI’s Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, and Its Reception In John Paul II and Benedict XVI(Wipf and Stock, forthcoming).