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Back to 2014_24_4_TEO_Dos papas para el mundo

Fermín Labarga, Professor of Church History

Two popes for the world

Thu, 24 Apr 2014 13:37:00 +0000 Published in La Razón

At the wish of Pope Francis, his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II, very different in their biography, personality and historical status , but very similar in many other aspects, including their deep and manifest desire to bring the Church closer to the contemporary world, will be canonized on the same day.

Since the Peace of Westphalia in the mid-seventeenth century, but especially since the loss of the Papal States in the nineteenth century, the Popes had been losing their influence on the course of society. Since Pius IX, and as a manifestation of an attitude of rejection of the evolution of events, the Popes had voluntarily secluded themselves in the Vatican.

This fact, not very important in itself but very illustrative of a mentality, began to break down with the election of John XXIII in 1958. The new Pope arrived at the Vatican with a rich human and intellectual background. Born into a modest family in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, already a priest, entered the service of the Holy See, which sent him as apostolic bequest to Bulgaria and then to Turkey and Greece, where he had to face very delicate situations. After the hard experience of representing the Pope in countries with no Catholic tradition, he was assigned to the nunciature in Paris, where things were not easy either, especially in the years of profound social transformations after World War II. In 1953 he was appointed cardinal and patriarch of Venice, in what Roncalli himself considered to be his last service to the Church, happy to return again to more direct pastoral work, at contact with the fi elds of a small diocese where it was soon possible to see him among children and workers, in hospitals and prisons and always preaching with simplicity and with the example of a dedicated and austere life.

For many reasons, among them his seventy-seven years, the election of Cardinal Roncalli as the new Pope in 1958 came as a real surprise. Many thought that his would be a pontificate of mere transition, but they were wrong. A few months later and - as he himself indicated - following a divine inspiration, he dared to call a new council, Vatican II, with a clear purpose : to present the Church to the contemporary world with renewed splendor. It was the famous "aggiornamento" that sought to free the Church from everything that over the centuries could have adhered to her and that prevented her from contemplating her authentic physiognomy and discovering her priority mission statement : the advertisement of the Gospel to the men and women of every generation with ever new vitality.

Thanks to John XXIII, the Church undertook the necessary task of reflecting on her being and her mission statement in the contemporary world, in many aspects so changing and different from previous times. He himself was committed to breaking tensions, sometimes historical, both in the field of ecumenical and political relations, which were very tense due to the Cold War (we can recall the reception in the Vatican of the daughter of N. Khrushchev). His encyclicals "Mater et magistra" (1961) and "Pacem in terris" (1963) were along the same lines.

With a certain timidity, Pope John also wanted to break the cloistering to which his predecessors had been subjected. For this reason, his trip to Loreto and Assisi caused real jubilation. Today it is not surprising that the Pope should travel, but at that time - in 1962 - it was a real surprise. And in fact it is not a novelty because Paul VI continued to expand the radius of papal trips and John Paul II made so many that it can be said that he made the world his residency program. In the space of a few decades, we went from a Pope permanently enclosed within the walls of the Vatican to one who went beyond them regularly and systematically.

John Paul II has rightly been called the traveling Pope. The statistics, difficult to surpass, confirm this: 129 countries visited and more than 1,200,000 kilometers traveled. But what was the purpose of these journeys? Without a doubt, they responded to the desire to meet the Catholic faithful all over the world, wherever they live, approaching them as father and pastor in order to get to know their reality. John Paul II's pastoral concern, however, embraced the whole of humanity, including non-Catholics.

Born in Poland, the Second World War and the communist dictatorship marked the personality of Karol Wojtyla, who very early on had to learn to live and defend his faith and vocation in a hostile environment. That is why his election in 1978 was also an immense surprise. For the first time a Slavic bishop was elected to the throne of Peter and the persecuted Church on the other side of the Iron Curtain was now raising its voice from Rome. The experience of long years of priestly and episcopal ministry in adverse circumstances endorsed the courageous magisterium of the new Pontiff, whose first words from the balcony of St. Peter's were a wake-up call to open the doors, at staff and institutional level, and to overcome any fear.

The new Pope soon became a moral reference and an authentic world leader, unanimously respected and admired. His firm commitment to freedom and dialogue opened every door for him and helped him to break down every wall. His courage in denouncing situations of injustice and sin did not, however, detract from his popularity. As the years went by, and in spite of the notorious physical deterioration to which his illness subjected him, the figure of John Paul II acquired a prestige that is difficult to match, as was confirmed by the fact that his funeral was the largest meeting of world leaders in living memory.

John Paul II passionately loved the world in which he lived and on which his imprint is recognizably imprinted, as history will show. subject Any advance and progress was accepted with only one limit: the dignity of man and the defense of life. Profoundly faithful to tradition and carrying forward the wishes expressed at Vatican II, John Paul II proposed to the world the challenge of establishing a new culture anchored on the firm pillars of truth, justice, freedom and love. On the other hand, in the face of Marxism - largely overcome thanks to his tenacious civil service examination and savage capitalism - he offered the Church's social doctrine as a real alternative for the achievement of more just social and economic relations.

Both John XXIII and John Paul II knew how to face new and difficult situations because they were convinced that their strength lay in fidelity to Christ. But both were very clear that this was not opposed, on the contrary, to an intense desire to serve the world, for which it was necessary to know and love him, without fear or complexes. Christ did not come to condemn the world, but to redeem it, and the Popes, like all Christians, are called to support his salvific action, often imperceptible at first sight. God also makes use of the personality of each man to carry out this task, which is why there can be no doubt that both the good Pope John, with his affable character, and the sweeping hurricane from the East that was John Paul II were two precious gifts not only for the Catholic Church, but also for the convulsive world of the twentieth century.