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The Day of Doubles - Jesuits of North-West Africa Province | Society of Jesus

Gratitude Magazine March 2015 Edition

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The Day of Doubles: Reflecting on the Double Canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

Ujah Gabriel Ujah grat5bEjembi, SJ

In the presence of hundreds of thousands in the Vatican St. Peter’s Square and another hundreds of thousands glued to their television sets in Rome and around the world, it was about 10:15 am, the local time in Rome when Pope Francis uttered these words: “We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church.”  By this utterance, history of doubles was made! By this declaration, the Church now has two new saints who formed a pair of doubled support for the Church during her crisis of the twentieth century.  By these words, Pope Francis puts into concretion the words of Jesus “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven.”



This is the first canonization ceremony attended by two living popes, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  In this event, the first in the 2000 years’ history of the Church, two popes honored the memory of two previous popes.  This presence of double popes made the ceremony one of the meetings of different double histories.  Benedict XVI was invited to the Second Vatican Council as a young scholar, an event that brought him to the eyes of the universal Church.  He supported the reforms of John XXIII and was one of the closest friends of John Paul II.  Benedict XVI tasted the fruits of the two popes canonized because he helped to organize the reforms of John the XXIII and enabled John Paul II to implement these reforms.  It was not an accident that he was specially invited to witness the canonization of two of his predecessors he knew so well by Pope Francis who is embracing the paths of reforming the Church in the Spirit of John XXIII and John Paul II.  

The canonization ceremony took place on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Sunday of Divine Mercy. It is worth noting that devotion to the Divine Mercy was largely promoted by St. John Paul II and he officially approved the Second Sunday after Easter as the Feast of Divine Mercy.  This date was not chosen by chance but to celebrate the day of doubles: a ceremony of two men of courage and mercy on the Sunday of Divine Mercy.  Perhaps, what this canonization ceremony highlighted is the fact that the world can be changed if men and women imbibed the virtues of courage and mercy.  Mercy is generally the character of God the Father as narrated in both the Old and New Testaments.  Jesus will say, “All I want is Mercy”.  There is no doubt that the path needed by the Church today is one of courage and of mercy.  Pope Francis has begun to walk on that path and we have noticed how fast the image of the Church is changing around the world.  Why courage and mercy?

It was at a time when the Church was quite tactless to the cultural needs of the people of the Church that St. John XXIII called on a reflection on the relationship between the Church and the world.  This was the heart and the justified reason for the Second Vatican Council.  It was a courageous move because the Church was called to break away from traditions that are quite numb to the cultural needs of the people she serves. It was a merciful move because the Church wants her faithful to express themselves in her before their God in their cultural ways using their own language.  Simply, the Church wants to meet the faithful and embrace them wherever they are found.  This is the figure of the Merciful Father who ran up to his son in the popular story of the Prodigal Son.  It will take courage and mercy to implement courage and mercy as stipulated in the reflections of Vatican II.  This is where St. John Paul II meets St. John XXIII.  St. John Paul II spent most of his papacy rendering intelligible and accessible the fruits of the Second Vatican Council.  He brought God’s mercy to everyone by laboring to build strong and healthy human families.  He implemented the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.

For this reason, Pope Francis praised the new Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II as men of courage and mercy, who responded to the challenges of their time by modernizing the Catholic Church in fidelity to its ancient traditions. It was indeed the coincidence of doubles that a progressive St. John XXIII finds expression in the courage of the conservative St. John Paul II.  But what is interesting too about these two new saints is the fact that they were recent priests, bishops, and popes of the last century, the 20th century.  In underscoring their courageous ministries, Pope Francis describes our new saints as men who have lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful, faith was more powerful.

While St John XXIII is the saint of the Church’s modern renewal who brought the Church to the people, St. John Paul II is the saint of families who re-enkindled the Churches in homes.  The visionary changes reflected upon by St. John XXIII were left at the level of theory because of his short-lived papacy of 5yrs.  This was compensated by the 27yrs’ papacy of St. John Paul II who implemented most of the well-thought-out reflections of John XXIII.  Accordingly then, the canonization of the 27th of April, 2014 was a ceremony that celebrated a Pope who launched progressive reforms in the Church and another who implemented most of the reforms.  

By rising up to the rank of sainthood, those who are closely associated to the reforms of Vatican II, Pope Francis has elevated the status of the decrees of Vatican II to be the focus of the Church today.  Vatican II was a watershed for the Catholic Church, introducing vernacular to replace Latin at masses and calling for greater involvement of laity and women in the life of the Church. It encouraged ecumenism by calling all Christians members of one sheepfold.  It initiated effective dialogue with other religions and other Christian denominations, and forced the Church to improve the soured Christian-Jewish relations which have lasted for centuries.  In making John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints of the Church, the question is posed if the Church today upholds the fruits of their labours.  

The renewal orchestrated by Vatican II in the life of the Church made these canonizations inevitable.  It leaves the Church in Africa with many challenges.  The promulgation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council should be the preoccupation of the Church in Africa.  The Church in Africa needs a renewed evangelical gift to advance her mission on this continent.  We may draw from the simple, humane evangelical gifts of the two new saints: The closeness to common people, the shaking of hands, the kissing of babies, etc.  These were how the two new saints multiply their humanity.  The Church in Africa should also reflect on ways of expressing her evangelical gifts by laboring more and more to be close to the ordinary people and to shake hands with them.  This might be possible, for example, through the establishment of quality schools in communities where basic structures are absent and through a pastoral ministry that is close to families.


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