‘This day was made by the Lord; we rejoice and are glad!’ (Ps 117:24).
We heard this verse in the Responsorial Psalm. It is used every day of the Easter Octave.
Christ is the ‘day’ that his Father has ‘made’ by raising him from the dead. And through faith, we can run towards this day, like the women going to the empty tomb in the early morning. Like Thomas, saying ‘My Lord and my God!’, we can enter into this day, this light which will never set. We can walk in it; we can be children of light. We can rejoice in it.
Jesus is risen! This changes everything. He is free now. He came – twice – through the closed doors of the Upper Room where the disciples were locked in fear. He came in. He stood in their midst. He spoke to his disciples. He showed his wounds. And he entered their hearts and minds, and changed them. So they could say: ‘This day was made by the Lord; we rejoice and are glad!’
And Christ continues to come. He comes to each of us, he comes to all of us together. He comes to the whole Church, when we Christians are locked in fear. He comes through the Church into human history, where we are all so full of fear. He shows himself to be alive. He does this again and again by raising up saints and prophets. And so today Pope Francis is canonising two Popes, two successors of St Peter, two men of our own time. Two men through whom Jesus showed he is alive in the Church. Two men through whom he enters the room of the world to take away our fear. And so we can say too, ‘This day was made by the Lord made; we rejoice in it and are glad!’
What can I say that you don’t know already?
First let me go back a little in history. In 1798, when Napoleon was dominating Europe, Pope Pius VI was taken prisoner by the French. And many people thought that that was the end of the Papacy. And later, in 1870, the Papacy lost its ‘temporal power’, it lost the Italian lands it had governed for 1000 years. It seemed again the Papacy was finished. Instead, out of these ‘deaths’ came a resurrection. There came freedom. There has been a series of Popes who are now free to fulfil the mission Jesus gave Peter two thousand years ago. Free to be the rock on which the church is built and stands firm, free to be the shepherd who feeds the hungry, harassed sheep of Christ, free to be the fisherman who throws the net of the gospel into the world’s wild sea.
Today we remember two of these Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II.
John XXIII – Angelo Roncalli – was Pope from 1958 to 1963. He came from a peasant family. He became a priest and later a bishop. He worked as a papal diplomat. He became Patriarch of Venice. He was an historian. He was short and fat and not especially good-looking! When he became Pope at 77, nobody really expected him to do anything – just to keep things ‘ticking along’. But inside this old man was a great heart. He cared about peace. He longed for the unity of Christians. He knew the world was changing. And he wanted the Church to take up her unchanging mission of salvation in fresh, new ways, free of fear. He wanted Christ to shine in the world through the Church. He wanted the Church to mediate the ‘medicine of mercy’. And so he called the Second Vatican Council for this very reason. He felt he was responding to the touch of the Holy Spirit. Calling that Council is the great mark he left on history. It would affect the life of Karol Wojtyła and all of us. This he did at 78. So we are never too old to change the world! And there was a holy man behind this. All his life as a priest, John XXIII kept a spiritual diary. It is published as The Journal of a Soul. It reveals his character, his piety, his prayer. I remember reading it when I was feeling a lot of anguish, and it helped me. There is a calm and sweetness and trust in God in it, which is very beautiful. I recommend it!
And now to the beloved John Paul II. Perhaps some Popes ‘play’ in the minor key and others in the major key. In his last years as Pope, Paul VI – a holy man too – was playing in the minor key. Next came John Paul I who died within a month. It was bewildering. Then there stepped out onto the balcony of St Peter’s John Paul II, young, strong, energetic, a Polish surprise. He said: ‘Do not be afraid! Open the doors to Christ!’ It was a like great major chord sounding out. It was an echo of Jesus in the Upper Room.
A friend said to me at the time – she wasn’t a Catholic – ‘this is the end of Communism.’ So it was. Out of the suffering of his own life – the loss of his mother and brother – out of the ‘Passion’ of Poland in the Second World War and under the Communists came, like a resurrection, this extraordinary man. Priest, poet, playwright, sportsman, philosopher, teacher, mystic, bishop, cardinal and finally pope. This man of great faith, hope and love. This Christian who had entrusted himself completely to Mary. This father. This man who became the Pope of Confession and the Eucharist, the Pope of the young, the family and women, the Pope of the body and suffering, a Pope of unity and peace, the defender of life from conception to natural death, the icon of priesthood, the Pope of divine mercy. Yes, in many ways, he embodied God’s mercy as the 2nd millennium became the 3rd.
Pope John Paul was very good at being ‘first’ – the ‘first pope to do this or that’ – or ‘most’ – ‘the pope to do this or that most.’ But these are surface things. I leave them to the websites! Where’s the essence? It’s in those first words on the balcony. It’s in the opening words of his first Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, ‘the Redeemer of man.’ John Paul II loved Christ and he loved his fellow human beings. And he saw in Christ the one who is our real good, our truth, our lover, the redeemer of man, the one who raises us from sin and death, the one who makes us truly human, persons in the image and likeness of God. And for him the Church is the means and the place where human beings and Christ can meet. That meeting, that encounter, is everything. ‘And Jesus stood among them.’
As John XXIII had called the Second Vatican Council, so John Paul II implemented and authoritatively interpreted it. It was the central experience of his life, and it is the key to the man and his message. Let me quote then the two sentences of Vatican II Pope John Paul II repeated so often. They’re what he’d want us to hear today.
1. ‘It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man becomes clear’ (GS 22).
2. ‘Man, the only creature on earth God has willed for its own sake, can only find himself in the sincere gift of himself’ (GS 24).
How can we best honour St John XXIII? By trusting God.
How can we honour St. John Paul? His writings as Pope take up three metres in any library. We can’t read it all, but we can read something. He had a word for everyone: for the young, for artists, the sick, the elderly, women, lay people, politicians, journalists, families, priests, religious, and more. He had a word for Europe, for America, Africa, Asia. There’s a first way of honouring him – looking for the word he had for us. But still better is to make the ‘sincere gift of ourselves’ the intention and content of our life. That is holiness.
‘Jesus stood among them.’ The saints are given us to take away our fear. Through them Jesus comes into the closed rooms of our world. Through them we know he is risen and God is merciful.
‘This day was made by the Lord; we rejoice in it and are glad!’