The word “saint” for many conjures up images of religious heroes of the distant past, whose lives and deeds are memorialized in stained glass and statuary.
And while the Catholic Church has named several saints from the modern era, few have had the impact or reached so many people personally as the two canonized yesterday, the popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Millions of people had seen these two men personally, either through papal audiences, rallies or official visits. They are truly saints who have walked among us.
Both popes were known for their efforts to demystify the Church and bring it closer to the people.
Born Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII reigned from October 1958 to June 1963. After the long reign of Pius XII, the 76-year-old John was expected to be little more than a caretaker pope. Instead, he shook the Church’s foundation by launching the reform of the Second Vatican Council. Among the changes brought by Vatican II were an increased outreach to other faiths, a shift from the Latin Mass to local languages and increased participation of the laity.
John became known as “the Good Pope” and was famous for his sense of humor. When asked how many people work in the Vatican, John supposedly replied, “About half.” The quip may be apocryphal yet provides an insight into the popular pope’s personality.
The man who would become Pope John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland and upon his elevation to the papacy in 1978 became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
John Paul was among the most influential leaders of the 20th century. His opposition to communism and support for popular movements helped liberate his native Poland, the rest of Eastern Europe and eventually led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Theologically, John Paul supported the Vatican II reforms but resisted further liberalization, holding conservative views on contraception and the ordination of women among other matters.