My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
This past Sunday I had the unprecedented and memorable experience of concelebrating the Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for the historic canonization of two popes, St. John XXIII, affectionately known as “The Good Pope,” and St. John Paul II, whom admirers have called “Pope John Paul the Great.” The canonization ceremony was remarkable, with about a million people extending from St. Peter’s Square down to the Tiber River. I had a great seat just a few rows behind Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, not far from the Chair of Pope Francis.
My memories of Pope John XXIII are sketchy since I was only six years old when he was elected pope in 1958 and just two months short of my 11th birthday when he died in 1963. But I do remember the Second Vatican Council that he called, which changed so many of the practices of the Catholic Church that I had grown up with as a young boy serving Mass in Latin.
The early 1960s were years of great optimism both in the world and in the church. The election of the first Catholic president of the United States gave hope that our nation’s history of anti-Catholic bigotry had finally come to an end. In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy issued his great challenge to: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In response, large numbers of people volunteered for the Peace Corps. His call for our space program to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade was met with great energy and success.
At the same time, however, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union weighed heavily on many people’s minds. By the end of the decade, optimism had faded with the assassinations of President Kennedy in 1963, his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and civil-rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., also in 1968. By then the United States was also deeply mired in the Vietnam War.
Similarly in the church, the decade began with great optimism that the Second Vatican Council would evoke a great deepening of faith, inspire vocations to the priesthood and religious life and lead to increased growth of the Catholic Church throughout the world. In the years that followed the Council, many people felt a sense of confusion about the direction and the future life of the church.
It is in this context that Cardinal Karol Wojty?a, Archbishop of Cracow, was elected pope in 1978 and took the name John Paul II to show the continuity of papal leadership and connection to the two popes who were instrumental in the work of the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII and Paul VI.
After the worldwide number of priests fell from 419,728 in 1970 to 403,480 in 1985, that trend reversed and has increased each year thereafter to 404,750 in 1995; 405,178 in 2000; 406,411 in 2005; and 412,236 in 2013. Many priests ordained in these years attributed their priestly vocations to the example and inspiration of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic population also grew from 653.6 million in 1970 to 1.196 billion by 2013 (source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate). In this sense, Pope John Paul II completed the task of the Council that was set in motion by Pope John XXIII. Hence, it is fitting for them to have been canonized saints together in the same ceremony.
My memories of Pope John Paul II are more vivid because I had many more personal connections with him in my adulthood. He was elected pope the year I was ordained a priest and served as our Holy Father for the first 25 years of my priesthood, after which he appointed me bishop in 2003. I had the privilege of meeting him on several occasions and concelebrating morning Mass with him in his private chapel when I was doing my graduate studies in Rome.
During that time, my siblings and I gave my parents a trip to Rome as a gift for their wedding anniversary in 1988. My parents and I were given not only the rare privilege of participating at Mass with Pope John Paul II at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, but my father did the reading at that Mass.
When I was chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I accompanied Cardinal Francis George to Rome on several occasions. At one of these meetings, I had the opportunity to converse with Pope John Paul II in the Polish language. Since I was introduced as a priest from Chicago, he asked where I was born, and when I replied that I was born in Chicago, he seemed surprised and said, “You speak Polish very well!” What a great compliment, coming from our Polish pope!
In a sense, St. John XXIII set in motion the impetus for increased growth in the church. St. John Paul II brought that work to fruition, instilling the church and the world with a sense of confidence, courage and hope. Both of these great saints show us that holiness is not something that is out of reach. They have given us wonderful examples showing the way for all of us to be saints!
May God give us this grace. Amen.