John XXIII and John Paul II, both extraordinary popes, changed the papacy, the church, and the world. But that’s not the most important thing about them.
An ocean of words has been written on the two men in advance of their being declared saints today. A common narrative treats them as leaders with very different visions for the church. John XXIII was the brave progressive freeing the church from outdated ideas and rules; John Paul II was the Polish conservative trying to reimpose an older vision of Catholic life.
It’s a congenial story line, but only for people who find facts burdensome. The reality of the two men was more complex.
Born of an Italian peasant family and a veteran of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, John XXIII was 77 when elected — firmly anticommunist and a traditional churchman in many ways. Within a few months, though, he surprised the world by calling the Second Vatican Council.
The need for a council was not a new idea. It had been discussed internally by leading bishops and theologians for some time. But John XXIII had the courage to pursue it. He hoped a new ecumenical council would reinvigorate the methods, forms and structures of the church to address the needs of the modern world.
In effect, John wanted to make the church better at what she was called to do, not to reinvent who she is. When he opened the first session of the council, he told the world’s bishops that his overriding concern was that “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”
As John made clear in his great encyclical “Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”), the church pursues her mission of mercy and salvation for the sake of the world. The church must “hold the world in an embrace of love, that men, in every age, should find in her their own completeness in a higher order of living, and their ultimate salvation.”