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Four Popes - a historic moment

Most Rev. Alexander Sample
Archbishop of Portland

In the hallway outside my mother’s room hang three pictures taken in 1995 when she visited me while I was studying in Rome.  They are pictures of us with St. John Paul after a private Mass with him at Castel Gandolfo. I said to my mother the other day, “Think of it, mom.  We are in a picture talking to a saint!”

On Sunday, April 27, St. Peter Square in Rome was filled with pilgrims celebrating a very historic event involving four Popes. In the presence of two living Popes, two other Popes were canonized. We have witnessed a moment that will live forever in the history of the Church.  For the first time in history, two Popes were canonized in the same ceremony. This took place in the presence of Pope Francis, with Pope Emeritus Benedict concelebrating the Mass of canonization with him. This is the first time in history that a Pope Emeritus has publically concelebrated a Mass with a reigning Pope.

I have been amused by some of the reporting of this event that has been given us by many in the mainstream secular media. They are trying to portray this as Pope Francis “appeasing” both liberals and conservatives in the Church. He has canonized the “liberal” St. John XXIII and the “conservative” St. John Paul. I have even heard it reported that the more “liberal” Pope Francis included the “conservative” Pope Emeritus Benedict to further appease the “right.” What absolute nonsense!

Many do not seem to understand the “Catholic” way.  There is nothing at all contradictory in the pontificates of these four Popes. Certainly each has brought his own personality, perspective, background, emphasis and even “style” to the office of the Successor of St. Peter. But this should never be seen as a shift in Catholic doctrine or teaching, as if there is some sort of discontinuity at play here. There cannot be, for Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide his Church into all truth.  The Holy Spirit raises up the right Pope for the right time.

It is a danger to bring political labels into the realm of Church teaching and discipline. I think St. John XXIII would actually be very surprised to learn that he was a “liberal,” simply for calling the Second Vatican Council.  And St. John Paul was actually fairly “progressive” on several fronts, especially in the promotion of the Church’s social doctrine. Don’t forget, St. John Paul beatified St. John XXIII!

We all have and continue to benefit from the contributions these two great Popes have made to the life of the Church in our time. St. John XXIII, in calling the Second Vatican Council, opened up a whole new era for the Church in the modern world.  He who was thought at the time to be a “caretaker” Pope and not expected to do much at his age, ended up ushering in a new age for the Church in her engagement with the world and in the proclamation of the Gospel.

St. John Paul was one of the Council Fathers and was not only present for the sessions of Vatican II, but had a significant impact on the formulation of the Council documents themselves.  After a turbulent period following the Council during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, and after the brief 33 day pontificate of Pope John Paul I, St. John Paul shepherded the Church through a period of authentic implementation of the Council called by St. John XXIII.  Who better to help us understand and implement the Second Vatican Council than one who was there and who helped shape the thought of the Council?

Pope Emeritus Benedict was also present at all four sessions of Vatican II, not as a bishop but as a theological expert.  He was actually considered a fairly progressive theologian at the time.  He is a true scholar of the Council and is a remarkable and astute theologian.  It was he who called for the “Year of Faith” for the beginning of the new evangelization.  During this year he urged us to go back and read the Council documents again and to re-appreciate them.  We have yet to fully harvest the rich fruit of the Second Vatican Council. 

And now Pope Francis continues the great work of forwarding the vision of the Council in complete continuity with the Popes who went before him, and not just to the time of the Council, but through the whole history of the Church and back to blessed St. Peter himself.  Many of the things that Pope Francis has said that have gained wide media attention were also said by Pope Benedict and St. John Paul before him.  Many compare Pope Francis to St. John XXIII and are rightly excited by the fresh vision he brings to the office of the papacy.  I also remember a similar excitement when St. John Paul  burst upon the scene in 1978.

Continuity.  What a great comfort it is to be part of a community of faith that is guided so rightly by the Holy Spirit through the ages.  Pope Emeritus Benedict spoke often of a need for reform in continuity.  That is what we have been witnessing in these modern times.  It will continue.  Celebrate this historic moment in the life of the Church, and keep your eyes and hearts on the true letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for the gift of these four Popes, two of whom are now numbered among the saints!

Related Stories:
• Canonizing two popes

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, May 2, 2014
Article comment by: henry Miller

Thanks Bishop Sample who spent time to write this article. I can learn something about the church history. Last week, Catholics around the world were exciting about this event. I attended the Sunday mass and It's surprising me that the priest who celebrate the mass hadn't mention anything about this event. What's wrong of this priest ? Is not this priest belong to Roman Catholic Church ?

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