In 1981, when Pope John Paul II awoke in the intensive care unit, following life-saving surgery for gunshot wounds he sustained during an assassination attempt, he asked his secretary, "Have you said Compline?"
Even in the ICU, Karol Wojtyla adhered to his practice of closing the day with the Liturgy of the Hours. Indeed, his subsequent decision to visit his would-be assassin in prison to offer forgiveness provided further evidence of his disciplined prayer life and desire to do the Father’s will.
Sanctity, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is defined as the fruit of divine action and of the soul placing God at the beginning and the end of life. Aquinas wrote that holiness is marked by a spiritual detachment that nurtures the free contemplation of truth and by a stability of practice that feeds the soul’s desire to serve God in all things.
On April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday, John Paul II and John XXIII will be canonized by Pope Francis.
The lives of both saints have enriched our own understanding of sanctity as a radical and deeply personal testament of God’s mercy in a broken world.
Though less well known to many 21st-century Catholics, John XXIII also forged a path to holiness marked by an ordered life of prayer and a humble dependence on God in all things. His published diary, Journal of a Soul, presents the simple principles that shaped his life as a priest, diplomat and pope. "Entrust myself at all times to Divine Providence," and "Always acknowledge my own nothingness" are among the precepts that guided his spiritual progress from his teenage years in a junior seminary.
Karol Wojtyla and Angelo Roncalli were cradle Catholics, raised in the faith during the same century and on the same continent, yet their beliefs and their desire for virtue would be tested in starkly different ways.
Roncalli grew up in Italy, one of 14 children raised in a peasant family. He served in the Italian military during the First World War and later advanced through the Holy See’s diplomatic corps before he was made a cardinal in 1953.
Karol Wojtyla was the youngest of three children fathered by a retired Army officer and a devout Catholic in Wadowice, Poland. By the time Karol was 20, he had lost every member of his family. He would narrowly evade arrest by the Nazis while studying at an underground seminary, and he later dueled with the Soviet-backed Polish government and secret police during his years as the cardinal-archbishop of Krakow.
Amid an age dispirited by man-made calamities and skeptical of God’s providence, each man lived the gift of spiritual paternity with the unique grace and solitude of the Vicar of Christ.
"The whole world is my family. This sense of belonging to everyone must give character and vigor to my mind, my heart and my actions," John XXII wrote in a 1959 journal entry. Breaking the pattern of his predecessors, who had rarely strayed from the Vatican, he visited a local prison and hospital during his pontificate.
Karol Wojtyla, the man who mourned his father’s passing for the whole of his adult life, brought the Father’s love to the "Altar of the World," as one museum exhibit described his pontificate, which straddled the globe.
George Weigel, the author of two biographies on John Paul II, has drawn attention to his subject’s "remarkable capacity to embody the key traits of fatherhood (strength and mercy) in a world bereft of true fathers. That he also communicated, through that paternity, the reality of a transcendent order in which we participate and which breaks into our mundane reality at surprising moments of grace simply added to the attraction of the man."
Both men embraced the mercy of the Father as a centerpiece of their legacy. And they emphasized that this mercy, affirmed throughout salvation history, could not be separated from the Father’s saving truth — countering modern efforts to sever the Gospel from social and political campaigns that redefined the terms of justice and forgiveness.
John XXIII presented the Second Vatican Council as an expression of the mercy of God. In his opening address, he insisted, "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven."
John Paul II, in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Divine Mercy), warned that the modern world increasingly exhibited a distain for the mercy of God, revealed "in Christ and through Christ." He found that the world was searching for its own response to the reality of human weakness and failure, and that path departed from the way of the cross, from the authority of the Creator, the "Father of Mercies." Yet he found hope in the concurrent movement within the Church that celebrated the mercy of God amid the ashes of two world wars.
"The truth, revealed in Christ, about God, the ‘Father of mercies,’ enables us to ‘see’ him as particularly close to man, especially when man is suffering, when he is under threat at the very heart of his existence and dignity. And this is why, in the situation of the Church and the world today, many individuals and groups guided by a lively sense of faith are turning, I would say almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God. They are certainly being moved to do this by Christ himself, who, through his Spirit, works within human hearts."
Christ made himself a "slave" and died on the cross for the salvation of the world. John XXIII and John Paul II both ruled as the Supreme Roman Pontiff, but each man’s spiritual paternity sprung from a denial of self and a hunger for God and his will.
The path to mercy is the hard road of the cross. Cheap substitutions, including euthanasia and abortion, cannot bring healing or inspire a conversion of heart.
As the Church celebrates the canonization of two popes and marks the feast of Divine Mercy, Catholics across the world come face-to-face with the truth that sanctity itself is a message of hope, inspiring the faithful to advance in their own journeys to eternal life with the Father of Mercies.