Pope Francis declared this summer that two of his predecessors, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have lived documentably holy lives and are entitled to the hallowed title of saints!
No one has to be reminded about the life of Pope John Paul II. He was dramatically on the scene until less than a decade ago. While he was here on Earth, he accomplished wonders as he moved around the planet calling people to faithfulness and the world to peace.
Pope John XXIII had served earlier and his life ended in 1963.
His election was a surprise.
It followed the long reign of Pope Pius XII and most likely the cardinals were looking for someone who would not be in office too long.
There were extraordinary, new forces swirling around our battered planet: Eastern Europe was controlled by the Communists. The so-called Third World was trying to do a balancing act between the United States and its Allies and the Soviet Union.
The Cardinals elected a man who was 77-years-old.
They were right on one thing. It was a short pontificate.
He led the Catholic Church for just five years but he was both a leader and a visionary.
As a young man, Pope John had served as a soldier in the Italian Army in the First World War.
After becoming a priest, he was assigned to the Papal Diplomatic Corps and served in a number of important but difficult spots in the Balkans.
He was Papal Ambassador to France and then was appointed as a Cardinal Archbishop of Venice and then in 1958, he was elected to be the 261 Successor of St. Peter.
The world immediately fell in love with this venerable Holy Pontiff.
He was relaxed, down to earth and mixed easily with every strata of society.
He never forgot his roots.
Born and raised in the Italian Alps, he stayed very close to his family.
His family members would occasionally come down to Rome to visit their famous relative and the delightful thing about that is that they would always bring their own food and a little extra for him.
At that time, the Vatican seemed to be enjoying a quiet and peaceful period and then suddenly, at a relatively unimportant liturgical event at the Vatican, John XXIII announced that he was calling an Ecumenical Council. He said he would convene all of the bishops of the world to a meeting in the Vatican.
In the Catholic Church, such a Council is extremely important but a none too frequent event.
In fact, there have only been 20 Ecumenical Councils in the first 2,000 years.
Middle level Church leaders were startled. What would a Council do?
Some of the biggest struggles in the history of the Catholic Church were between world councils and reigning pontiffs.
Yet, John XXIII sailed serenely on. And so on October 11, 1962 more than 2,500 bishops from around the world met at St. Peter’s to begin the Second Vatican Council.
The bishops would meet for approximately four months a year for the next four years to produce a number of extraordinary documents that would to a great extent change the way the Church was functioning in the 20th century.
The changes they agreed on generated both great enthusiasm and great tension among the faithful. Even today, more than 50 years later, the tension has not completely subsided.
In addition to his extraordinary act of convening the Council, he also wrote two extraordinarily important encyclicals that have had a dramatic impact on the Church itself and the relationship of the Church to the world.
These two documents are Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) in 1961 and Pacem en Terris (Peace on Earth) in 1963.
These are truly remarkable documents that developed in much greater detail the Church’s commitment to helping to develop more just and equitable societies and economies.
They are still basic policy statements of the Catholic Church regarding social issues.
Many of us are hopeful that Pope Francis will call yet another Council to resolve some of the issues that are still not completely resolved.