Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Saints in the life of the church

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The canonization on Mercy Sunday of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II brought into focus Christ’s purpose for his church: to make the world holy by bringing us into his friendship. God’s great goodness has become clear once again in the lives of two popes who governed the church during the lifetime of many of us. We have been witnesses to the grace of God working itself out in the life and ministry of these two pastors of the church.

Sanctity is friendship with God, habitual friendship that shapes an entire life. Since God knows us from the first moment of our existence and always knows us better than we know ourselves, he takes the initiative in this friendship. God loves us because he is good, not because we are. From our sinfulness, we have to learn to be his friend. And he teaches us gradually, sometimes surprisingly, mostly through our experience of being loved and loving in return. God is love, and his friendship draws us into a world entirely shaped by love, unlike a life measured by goods, prestige, wealth and power. Small-minded critics sometimes read everything in the church as an exercise of power; but this distorts the reality of God’s grace. Canonization is about holiness, not power. The history of the church is a history of holiness.

Much has been written and said about the two popes now declared saints by Pope Francis. Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council and gave it a pastoral purpose: to change the relationship between the church and the world, so that the world could come to know its savior and there might be peace among all those whom Christ died to save. Pope John Paul II contributed to the council deliberations as a young archbishop. In particular, he helped shape the documents on religious liberty and on the church in the modern world. His thinking on these matters was a reflection on his experience as a young man and a priest and bishop ministering under two totalitarian systems: Nazism and Communism. His catechesis in Krakow after the council depended on the council’s teaching, and his ministry as pope brought the church into a new relationship with the peoples of the world. His entire pontificate was dedicated to fulfilling the council’s promise. It is, therefore, the Second Vatican Council that unites these two popes in their ministry, just as holiness of life unites them in their destiny.

To help these canonizations have lasting effect in the church and the world, we need to reexamine our own lives and ask how we have taken to heart the mandate of the council. How have we helped the Lord to influence, change, convert the affairs of the world itself? Both John XXIII and John Paul II urged us not to be afraid to be messengers of the Gospel, to be witnesses to the joy of the Gospel, as our present holy father expresses it. All the recent popes have told us that the council calls all of us to become partners with God’s grace in a new evangelization, one that is rooted in our own conversion of mind and heart and action, based on our own friendship with Christ.

Conversion, both personal and social, is always possible because God is merciful. Pope John Paul II, who instituted the Feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter, described mercy as “love that is eager to forgive.” Like St. Thomas in the Gospel for Mercy Sunday, we know we have sinned, but sin is not the last word. God’s mercy is the last word: “I forgive you your sins.” In the certitude of that personal forgiveness, the Lord gives us the courage to forgive others and to change the world.

In general, changing the world means that in business, people come before profit. In politics, principle and not power shapes the public debate about the common good. In the legal system, the search for truth prevents the politicization of the courts, the police and the legal profession. In health care, the protection of every human life qualifies claims to patient autonomy. In civic life, community takes precedence over self-proclaimed individual rights. In family life, fidelity born of love protects stable homes and recognizes children as a gift rather than a commodity to satisfy parents. In education and the arts, talent is at the service of virtue rather then merely a vehicle for self-expression. In our relationships with those of other faiths, dialogue creates respectful relationships.

In short, the new evangelization called for by the council and worked out in fits and starts in the intervening years, calls us to a deeper friendship with God and to a way of life, both private and public, that makes this world a bit more like the eternal kingdom of God rather than where we now live. An evangelizing attitude rejoices at the very real good that fills our world and then speaks the truth in love to the evils that work to destroy that good.

The new evangelization is a common enterprise that has been led by our universal pastors, the bishops of Rome, especially the two in whose sanctity we now bask. They became saints not for themselves but for the church and the world. God used them and their friendship with him to help us to enter more fully into the mission of the church, to keep us together in the Body of Christ. Our unity bears witness to their lives and work. Our unity in Christ also opens up for each of us the path to holiness. Christ is a universal savior. He never comes alone and we never are his friend without being a friend to his friends: the saints of all the ages, including now Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

Now we can pray, through their intercession, that we too may be saints, friends of the Lord, united with him in the intimacy of his grace and love. As we thank God for the holiness of those recently canonized, let us renew our desire for the gift of holiness first given us in baptism, won for us by Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.

Above all, let us never be afraid. God wants to be our friend. God bless you.


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