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Renewing My World: A Personal Reflection

When I am discussing baseball players or musicians, I find it very appropriate and enjoyable to get into sparring matches about “who’s better?” Not so much with popes. And so personally, I find this dual canonization very gratifying. It gives us as a church an opportunity for gratitude, to say what it meant for these men to lead us.

I was minus-9 years old when Angelo Roncalli died. (So “I was not,” I supposed you could say.) But St. John XXIII fathered the Catholic world in which I grew up. Had there been no John XXIII, I suppose my Mass might still have been in Latin, my grade-school sisters in habits, and my lessons filled with the terrors of mortal sins and the dangers posed by associating with Protestants. It’s a counterfactual, so who really knows? It’s easy to stereotype (nostalgically or critically) “the pre-Vatican-II” church. All I know from my own experience is that John XXIII meant that I can never remember a time when somehow faith seemed like a museum piece, separate from life. Faith and life flowed together, in ways sometimes messy, sometimes deeply fruitful. I am grateful for that. I came to know John XXIII himself only in college, through stumbling across Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography. It was absorbing reading, the picture of the unlikely, kindly pope who surprised everyone and changed Catholicism. I later read the collection of “Xavier Rynne’s” columns from the Council itself, relishing how energetically and ingeniously the Church had made this huge step forward. And I read Pacem in Terris, a powerful, sweeping document that urged peace as a central mark of my college Catholic practice. Together with discovering Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, I saw my Catholicism as this boundless, hopeful, challenging vision for the world.

My subsequent education happily demonstrated that Vatican II was not (and could not have been) a one-man show, as if it was the pope against everyone else. A couple generations of quiet innovation and careful (often ecclesially dangerous) work had gone on that made the Council’s achievements possible. But without John, there would have been no opportunity. John XXIII understood what many, then and now, do not quite get: the Church does not need to be paralyzed with fear, anxiety, and defensiveness. The Gospel is one of joy. As is fitting in this season of resurrection, we can embrace as John did the greeting of the Risen Christ: “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid” was also the signature of another pope, one of those aforementioned innovators that made the Council possible. If John made the world of my youth, John Paul was undoubtedly its leader. When I was just hitting 7 years old, news was the pope was coming to my hometown. Growing up in a Chicago neighborhood with a huge Polish population, a year after the election of this first Polish pope, my grade school geared up. I can still remember posting large letters in all the school windows that spelled out a greeting to the pope – if I remember correctly, his motorcade was scheduled to drive past our school on the way downtown. I thought this was pretty neat. But then again, I didn’t quite get it. Big names came to Chicago all the time.

What I didn’t realize as a 7-year-old was that popes were not just big names. They weren’t VIP’s or world leaders who traveled all over the globe. At least, they weren’t before Karol Wojtyla was elevated to the See of Peter. I still have to communicate to my students what a huge deal it was when Pope Paul VI, during Vatican II, went to visit the Orthodox Patriarch and then went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before that, popes didn’t leave Rome. But St. John Paul II shattered that idea – as he did so many others. He was an innovator in service of tradition.

If someone were to ask me to name what makes John Paul a saint in my mind, I would probably not name all the documents that filled my years of education, much as I love Laborem Exercens or Veritatis Splendor. Instead, I would turn to some of the boldest gestures of his papacy. His travel, his cultural expansion of the communion of saints, his gestures of solidarity with those of other faith traditions. And especially, his dramatic “apologies” on the eve of the millennium for the church’s failures and sins of the past – a communal “confession” which left the details of theology in the dust in favor of the urgency of trusting in God’s boundless mercy. These are the reasons why, whatever “side” one took in the battles over church politics, John Paul was beloved, consistently gaining favorable ratings from over 90% of Catholics throughout his papacy.

Given the length of his service, we are perhaps more acutely aware of the man’s failures as well as his successes. No doubt his charismatic leadership style worked best on the broad stage, but did not always lead to the best management practices. The constant drip-drip of clergy sexual abuse is no doubt the most notorious example. The personal bravery of John Paul’s later years of publicly suffering through frailty and decline might lead us to pause and reflect whether a courageous head-on confrontation with this scandal would have been an analogously-brave public ecclesial suffering.

But the point of canonization is not to declare someone perfect. He changed the world, accompanying me as I grew up. When I was 7, this new pope made his way to Chicago. In 2005, when I was 33, I was leading a group of students on a weekend field trip to Christian communities in Chicago when news of the pope’s death broke. After attending Sunday mass at Holy Name Cathedral, we drove to our last stop, the Sunday service at an inter-racial Evangelical Protestant community in the midst of the dire poverty of Chicago’s West Side. The church, led by a former football coach, Wayne Gordon (still called “Coach”), was a beacon of light in that community, and my Catholic students were wowed by the music, clapping, and general exuberance of the worship. But imagine my surprise when “Coach” began his sermon with a lengthy, heartfelt tribute to John Paul II. I knew in past ages, evangelical Protestant communities might have seen the pope as antichrist, and seen Catholics as “barely” true Christians (at best). Now here I was, at this bible-thumping place, and they were offering a stirring eulogy for the holiness of the pope at his passing. That’s my lasting memory and symbol for how this man truly did change the world.

Whenever I look back on the history of the Church and see some of the shameful men who sat in Peter’s Chair, I feel blessed to live in an age where popes shine with holiness. And it is fitting, too, that Pope Francis is presiding over this. The glow of holiness is, in the end, what matters. And it would difficult to argue with the committed holiness of any of these leaders. In their different ways – and all together – let them inspire us in our commitment to the Gospel.


(A lengthier version of this post appears at

About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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It almost became axiomatic that JPII  was kinder to NOn-Catholics than Catholics. His ecumenism, work with the Jews, his stirring prayer at Assisi, his visit to the wall. were profoundly inspiring events. His numerous apologies for the sins of the leaders of the church towards many is really stunning.  (Partial List)

Yet he made some misdeeds that other popes will have to apologize for. Though he apologized for the abuses women suffered at the hands of the Church he continued them. He apologized to theologians who were censured while he censured some of the greatest minds. What future pope will apologixe to Bernard Haring , Hans kung, Charles Curran, etc?

This was really a political canonization. One has to feel for Francis who is working to get over the cultural wars. In the sense that it brings the church together it is positive. 

Other than that Michael your post may sound like hero worship which has long been a problem in the post Constantine church. Your childhood experiences are understandable. Perhaps the mature theologian can moderate that.  After reading Fr. Thomas Doyle's account of JPII and what he knew about the sex abuse problem and did not act, it is difficult to buy your picture of him.


Thank you for this post.

I was hoping to find a place where I could say: today, I felt grateful, happy and hopeful. 

Deo Gratias.




I was struck this morning by what looked like -- judging by banners -- somewhere between a 20-1 and 40-1 advantage in numbers of JPII fans over those specifically present for John XXIII. "What's the matter?" I asked myself groggily. "Don't they have buses in Bergamo?" This post reflects what gradually dawned on me: Those of us who remember John have had our ranks thinned by time, and few of us are up to a four-hour-plus stand in St. Peter's Square.

When David Cloutier was minus 13 or minus 14, I was preventing the Soviets from pouring through the Fulda Gap into western Europe. When Pius XII died, my first sergeant, a Baptist from a very small town in Tennessee, announced to all and sundry that Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and the military ordinariate would definitely be Pius' successor. He was willing to bet, so Angelo Roncalli won $5 for me. Not every pope would do that for a GI.

So... we have the two new saints... perilously balanced... pilgrims, tourists return home... all are.. vindicated? affirmed? inspired?

Let's now move on, Pope Francis... your commission of Cardinals and so much else awaits you...

Vive el papa!

In referring to the late Polish pontiff, I must remember to put the word 'Saint" in quotation marks --- as in "Saint" JPII.  I said for years that while this pope glad-handed the non-Catholic world (holding babies, kissing airport tarmacs, ad nauseum), he was whipping those Catholics with whom he disagreed.  He was also backtracking on Vatican II.  I know: My four years in Catholic high school coincided with the four years of the council.  My mother was Protestant so I always felt somewhat odd mentioning the fact during my parochial school years.  

Yesterday's canonization, which I deliberately did not watch on TV, was pure church politics.  If Francis thinks this event is going to reunite the Church of Rome, he has a thing or two to learn.  If JPII --- oops, "Saint" JPII was bad, Pope Bennie was worse (I await his demise so I can hear the throngs in Vatican square shout, once again, "Santo subito".  We have a great divide in the church because there are enough Catholics who remember (or learned in the intervening years) the focus on renewal at Vatican II and refuse to accept the [email protected] that has emanated from the bowels of the Vatican the past 35 years.  And, of course, we have those Catholics --- the so-called "traditionalists" or self-described "orthodox" --- whose love for everything Tridentine and Triumphalist is ultimately based on good ol' fashioned FEAR.  

In a nutshell, we have JPII --- reinforced by Papa Ratzinger --- to thank for delaying the *War Between the Catholic Worlds*.  Their ironclad rule merely put off the inevitable conflict between those eagerly embracing possible change, on the one hand, and others intently determined to preserve the preconciliar status quo.  I welcome this conflict because I have no need for two men who believed they (as supreme pontiffs) had the prerogative to remold this progressive council to suit their own wishes.

Poor John XXIII: The victim of guilt by association.

I'm old enough to remember being wowed by John XXIII's election and gutsy call for Vatican II. I had been educated during the Pius XII years and many of my memories are of a dour, thou-shalt-not brand of religion, although softened somewhat by many cheerful, good-natured nuns. Anyway, I fell in love with Angelo Roncalli and his humor and humanity and only later realized how bravely and cleverly he was able to get the council going in spite of roadblocks by the Curia. He was a saint in my book  long before he was canonized

I was never as enamored with John Paul II as so many of the rest of the world were. I have an innate distrust of actors (same problem I had with Ronald Reagan) so that may account for some of it. But I know he did, in fact, do a lot of good in spite of stubbornly hanging on past when he could do the papacy justice. I don't begrudge him sainthood.

When Benedict came along I was horrified, and his ironfisted approach to the office was terribly disappointing, but I have to admire the grace with which he admitted he couldn't cope and stepped aside.

Now Francis bursts on the scene and the first thing he asks is for us to bless him! The man is human and not afraid to show it. Best thing to come along since John XXIII. He won't be perfect either, but he knows and admits it. God bless him!

A couple of commenters here have characterized the pairings of these two canonizations as a political move by Francis.  Here is Kenneth Woodward with another view:


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