Everyone Can Celebrate Recent Papal Canonizations
When two Princes of the Church achieved sainthood Sunday, non-Catholics had something to celebrate as well. Through canonizing Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the church faithful recognized that their saintly lives earned them a place in heaven. The rest of us pointed to the triumph of their spirit over temporal powers here on earth.
During the epic battle to defeat Nazi Germany, arch-atheist Joseph Stalin was asked to make a gesture towards Russian Catholics to influence Pius XII, who had taken a strong stance against communism, to join the struggle. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Stalin responded.
According to one report, the pope retorted: “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven.” Ironically, while no one has yet been able to verify that celestial encounter, Pius’ successor, Pope John XXIII helped shape attitudes of intergroup tolerance that persist to this day, while statues erected in Stalin’s honor have long been toppled and turned to dust.
As papal nuncio in France, Angello Roncalli faced the horrors of the Holocaust close up. He intervened to save the lives of countless Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. As Pope John XXIII, he wrote these revolutionary words, “We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognize in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. … Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did.”
He understood that the church had often been the cause of strife, enmity and bloodshed. When he convened the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of exploring the role of the church in a vastly changed modern world, he insisted upon re-examining the church’s stance not only to Jews, but to other faith groups. He left a legacy of committing the church to using the power of faith in a very different direction — to sow peace and harmony, rather than enmity and discord. When the world’s largest Christian group acts, others listen as well. Pope John’s position has become the accepted standard of all western religions.
Pope John Paul II made a singular contribution to the eradication of the world’s oldest prejudice. As a young man in Poland under Adolf Hitler, Karol Wojtyla was witness to hell on earth. He personally rescued a starving 13-year-old Jewish girl at a rail station, feeding and caring for her. His closest friend was a Jew. The very fact of that friendship was a stunning setback to those who wished to keep the old anti-Semitism alive. He became the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship, embracing Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and calling Jews the “elder brothers” of Christians.
He continued walking on new ground. He visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall, praying there for forgiveness for the way Christians had mistreated Jews for almost 2,000 years. He walked in pilgrimage to the blood-drenched killing grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He organized a papal concert in memory of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He established full diplomatic relations with Israel, accepting a revivified Jewish nation.
With no divisions at his disposal, this pope still succeeded in redrawing the map of the globe. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.” He lent moral support — and perhaps clandestine monetary support — to Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement, which forced liberalization in Soviet policy towards Poland. This rippled into pressure from other Soviet bloc nations, and eventually helped bring the entire Soviet enterprise to an unpredicted and bloodless demise. All of this without a single division.
Edmund Burke famously wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The two new saints of the church help establish a corollary that all people can embrace — sometimes all that is necessary for the triumph of good is that very good men do something. From principled and determined expressions of spirit, the world can see major and permanent change in the way large parts of humanity relate to each other.
It is a message from which our young Millennials will draw inspiration as they wade into the unchartered waters of 21st century leadership.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This article was originally published by USA Today.