John XXIII and John Paul II: Canonizing the bookends

Pope Francis’s bold decisions to canonize Blessed John XXIII without the normal post-beatification miracle, and to link Good Pope John’s canonization ceremony to that of Blessed John Paul II, just may help re-orient Catholic thinking about modern Catholic history. For what Francis is suggesting, I think, is that John XXIII and John Paul II are the twin bookends of the Second Vatican Council—and thus should be canonized together.

On Jan. 25, 1959, less than three months after his election, John XXIII surprised the Catholic world by announcing that he would summon the 21st ecumenical council in history. According to some Catholic thinkers, Vatican I’s teaching that the Bishop of Rome enjoyed a charism of infallibility under carefully defined circumstances had made future general councils unnecessary. General or ecumenical councils had previously been summoned to thrash out disputed questions of doctrine; the pope could now take care of that on his own; so, no more councils.

John XXIII disagreed. His council, while celebrating and reaffirming the deposit of faith, would explore ways in which the abiding truths the Church carries in history could be more effectively displayed to the world. It’s often said that John XXIII intended Vatican II to be a “pastoral” council, and that’s true enough. But John XXIII, a historian by trade, had a capacious view of what “pastoral” means.

He knew that the pope of his youth, the great Leo XIII, had unleashed reforming energies in the Church, energies that had created considerable turbulence (and not inconsiderable strife) in the first half of the 20th century. He wanted to focus those reforming energies through the prismatic experience of a new Pentecost, so that the Church might be a more evangelically compelling witness to Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Deconstructing Catholicism was the last thing on John XXIII’s mind. His grand strategic goal was a Church that could offer the world the “medicine of mercy” (as he put it in his opening address to the Council) in the form of life-giving truths.

As everyone who lived through the post-Vatican II years knows, John XXIII’s Council created a lot of turbulence of its own. One reason why, I’m convinced, is that Vatican II, unlike previous ecumenical councils, did not provide authoritative keys to its own proper interpretation. It defined no dogma. It condemned no heresy or heretic(s). It legislated no new canons for the Church’s law, it wrote no creed, it commissioned no catechism. These were the ways previous councils had told the Church, “This is what we mean.” Vatican II did none of that.

And we all know what happened next. A free-for-all over What Vatican II Meant ensued. And in the midst of that free-for-all, John XXIII’s strategic goal—an evangelically revitalized Church proclaiming the full symphony of Catholic truth in ways modernity could hear—got lost.

Then God raised up a man of sanctity, genius, and deep pastoral experience, a man of the Council who had led an extensive implementation of Vatican II in his own diocese under extremely difficult circumstances, as John XXIII’s third successor: Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, who took the name John Paul II, thus honoring John XXIII’s first two successors. Over the course of a 26-and-a-half-year pontificate, and with the aid of Joseph Ratzinger (another Vatican II veteran who would become John XXIII’s fourth successor), John Paul II gave the Church the keys to an authoritative interpretation of Vatican II.

He did it through his own magisterium, through the world Synod of Bishops, and through the Great Jubilee of 2000. And when he was called home to the Father’s house, he had oriented the Church toward the strategic goal John XXIII had defined on Oct. 11, 1962: the reform of Catholicism for a third millennium of evangelical and apostolic action, for the healing of the world.

Two radically converted Christian disciples, one Council, two bookends: that is what Catholicism celebrates at the canonization of Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.