Scholars and theologians reflect on the saints who walked among us

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asked scholars and theologians to offer insight into the lives of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Below are excerpts of their reflections.

John XXIII boldly opened a window for the Church to see the world with hope. John Paul II bravely opened a door through which he carried this hope as a relentless pilgrim. The itinerant pope spoke a message to the world, intended as well for the uncertain disciple, “Do not be afraid!” These were not just the words of the pope. It was the echo of Jesus stirring up the hearts of the disciples to leave behind their fears and cast their nets anew into uncertain waters.

--Bishop Jaime Soto, of Sacramento

As the religion reporter for a New York City newspaper, I had been assigned to cover the first official visit by a pope to the State of Israel. Through high-level connections, I obtained an invitation to the ceremony at the Western Wall. Security was extraordinarily tight. The streets leading to the Temple Mount were restricted to all but a handful of Israeli and Vatican officials. Military helicopters circled overhead.

Yet the scene was eerily quiet as the stooped 79-year-old pontiff tucked his note into the ancient stones. He was following a 300-year old Jewish tradition of slipping prayers for God into the giant golden-hued stones. The wall is the last remaining physical structure linked to the sacred site of King Solomon’s First Temple; the Second Temple -- which the Maccabees liberated in 165 BCE; and Herod the Great’s magnificently renovated Temple, where Jesus walked. The tradition of placing prayers in the wall stems from the Jewish belief that the Divine Presence has never moved from this ancient, much destroyed site.

Pope John Paul’s text -- a plea to God to forgive those who have persecuted the Jewish people throughout history -- in essence repeated the profound words he uttered weeks earlier at his famous Mass of apology in Rome.

His prayer note said:

God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behavior of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of yours to suffer,
and asking your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves to
genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.
Jerusalem 26, March 2000

Signed: John Paul II

--Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, 
director of Interfaith Affairs 
for the Anti-Defamation League

But my favorite story in [Henri] Fesquet’s delightful book was of John XXIII visiting a hospital in Rome called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, run by a group of Catholic sisters. As Fesquet tells the story, “The mother superior, deeply stirred by the papal visit, went up to him in order to introduce herself”:

“Most Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”

“Well, I must say you’re very lucky,” replied the pope. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ.”

--Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest

As a Church always in need of reform, two popes -- Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II -- sought to renew the Church with a revision of the Church’s law. How effective the instrument of renewal, this manner of “putting on Christ,” is in the life of the Church depends on the people of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

--Sister Sharon Euart, a Sister of Mercy of the Americas, 
is executive director of Resource Center for Religious Institutes.

My favorite times of John Paul's papacy were his trips to Poland. I accompanied him on the papal plane on all of the trips except the first in 1979, when I was still in New York. In Italy, he seemed at times to be suffocating and forced to be an Italian, which he clearly was not. In Poland, he was Polish.

And that made all the difference. His visits transformed him like a medicine that cures a sick person, and if I can take the liberty of being a bit irreverent, like a wine lover who tastes a fine, rare vintage after a period of being forced to drink a cheap brew.

--Phil Pullella is senior correspondent, Italy and Vatican, Thomson Reuters