IN HOLDING the joint canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, Pope Francis undeniably has been motivated by political considerations: he has sought to join the disparate forces in the Church that rightly or wrongly are embodied by the two charismatic saints and to foster stronger unity among Catholics.

The two popes, who became saints last April 27, were critical and decisive figures of the 20th century not only for the Church but also for world history.

Thought to be only a “placeholder” until a more competent pope would come along, Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the patriarch of Venice, was already 76 years old when he was elected in 1978. Taking on the name John XXIII, he stunned the world when he convoked the Second Vatican Council in an effort to seek an apertura a sinistra, an opening to the world, for the Church.

Growing with reformist theologians and being a historian himself, John XXIII realized that the Church must adapt herself to the present times without losing its foundations of teachings.

“What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men's moral lives,” he said when he opened Vatican II in 1962. “What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms.”

Roncalli also wrote two papal encyclicals, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, showing that nations must commit to keep the peace and work hand in hand in order to promote progress and human dignity. He emphasized the Church’s role as the guide of humanity toward God.

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Because of his reformist stance, John XXIII was championed by liberals. Time Magazine named him Man of the Year in 1963 and he landed on the cover of the liberal mag no less than three times.

Well loved and adored, John XXIII was called “Buono Papa” or the Good Pope. He died in 1963 when the Second Vatican Council had just started. But the council was continued by his successor, Pope Paul VI.

In contrast to John XXIII’s short pontificate, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who was elected in 1978, had the second longest reign of popes in history. Elected when he was just 58, he took on the papal name of John Paul II. He was Polish and was the first non-Italian Pope in nearly half a millennium.

Coming from Eastern Europe where the Church and communist bosses had tangled over religious freedom and human rights, John Paul II set for himself the immediate task of dismantling communism. With his charismatic presence, his confident stride and dramatic gestures (he was a stage actor and playwright before entering the priesthood), and penetrating philosophy of the human person (he was a Thomist and a student of the Dominicans of the Angelicum in Rome), he sallied forth against the communist world. In a little over a decade, his project was complete: Solidarity, the Catholic union of workers in his native Poland, had paralyzed Poland with its boycotts and one after the other, the communist states of Europe started falling. In the early 1990’s, even the Soviet Union had collapsed.

But John Paul II was also a powerful critic of liberal capitalism. His social encyclicals deplored the depredations of the free market and their dehumanizing effects. He also employed his theology and philosophy of the human person on morality, rallying the Church around the world to oppose the efforts of liberal lobbyists to make abortion a universal right during the International Conference on Population in 1994. Because of the success of the Church in blocking the attempt, Time Magazine grudgingly named him Person of the Year.

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It was also John Paul II who called for “New Evangelization,” fuelling the new missionary spirit that continues to inspire Catholics today in the new century.

“God is opening before the Church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel,” he said in his eighth encyclical, Redemptor Missio. “I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church's energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.”

Since evangelization begins at home, John Paul II sought to energize the Church by inspiring the next generation of Catholics. Forthwith he set up the World Youth Day, a biennial gathering of Catholic youths. In 1995, the global event was hosted by the Philippine Church and the culminating Mass saw the largest gathering of humanity ever in history—at least five million people cheering, “Pope John Paul, we love you!”

But why are these two men—of different backgrounds, personalities and positions—canonized on the same day? It was a message being sent to the world by Pope Francis: Despite the differences in methods, they proclaimed the same Gospel of Christ that continues to resonate and acts as a leaven for change, reform and conversion despite the vagaries and vicissitudes of time. Whatever approach they might have used, they still did their mission to preach God’s Word to all of us—the mission entrusted not only to popes, clergy and religious, but also to every single one of us.

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“I would like that all of us, after these days of grace, might have the courage to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Cross of the Lord: to build the Church on the Blood of the Lord, which is shed on the Cross, and to profess the one glory, Christ Crucified. In this way, the Church will go forward,” said Pope Francis in his first Eucharistic celebration as pope. It’s the same message preached by Saint Peter and the popes who came after him.

The joint canonization of two well-loved popes of the past century underscores the mission of the Church to preach the Gospel in the contemporary age, characterized by violence, debasement of the body and degradation of the human person, an age where moral relativism, apathy and self-idolatry reign. The Church will soldier on with New Evangelization in the face of persecution, following the example of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. Now as then, the Gospel remains trenchant and relevant: it is worth fighting for, and definitely worth dying for.

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