A Tale of Three Popes

Pope Francis’ Connection to John Paul II and John XXIII


VATICAN CITY — In canonizing his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, Pope Francis is raising to the altars two saints who helped shape the Catholic Church in the modern world through the Second Vatican Council. But Pope Francis himself and his own papacy share key connections with these two giants of the Church as he carries on their mission of renewal and proclaiming Christ to the world.

Much like Francis, both John XXIII and John Paul II were charismatic leaders who proclaimed the Gospel with their own populist styles that made them accessible to people.

"Both of them have touched a certain chord in the general public and the Catholic public, and people have reacted accordingly," said Catholic commentator Russell Shaw. "They get through to people, and they know how to speak to ordinary people — and ordinary people prick up their ears and listen."

Shaw sees Pope Francis’ papacy as a product of a "hermeneutic of continuity," building on the work of all the popes since John XXIII to bring to fruition the Second Vatican Council’s vision of authentic renewal and the New Evangelization of the modern world.

"John XXIII and John Paul II are two different models of what it means to be a holy person very much engaged with the contemporary world," said Shaw, "and I think that’s a very good thing for us to have today. They’re models of sanctity appropriate to the times in which we live."


John XXIII’s Papal Style

In terms of papal style, Francis has more in common with the homey "Good Pope John" than the more intellectual John Paul II, whose brilliant gifts left the Church a treasury of theological and philosophical writings. Shaw said John XXIII’s "gift as a communicator" is similar to Francis in both his spontaneity and genuine, disarming charm.

"He was a good, decent, humorous and charming man. … His charm was not that of a polished diplomat, but that of an honest, open human being, with a great love for his fellow human beings."

Key to understanding the connection between John XXIII and Francis, Shaw said, is their focus on "getting some of the rhetorical and conceptual clutter out of the way."

"They’re trying to simplify, streamline and get back to basics — and it resonates with a lot of people," he said.


Continuity With John Paul II

Pope Francis also shares a great deal of the vision of John Paul II. George Weigel, author of the John Paul II biography Witness to Hope, noted in a syndicated column for the Denver Catholic Register that the dual canonizations "underscore the continuity between John XXIII’s intention and John Paul II’s authoritative interpretation of Vatican II."

"Vatican II was intended to prepare the Church for the challenges of evangelization in late modernity, an intention realized by John Paul II’s use of the Council’s teaching to launch the world Church into the New Evangelization of the third millennium," he added.

Weigel also stated that Francis’ canonizing John XXIII and John Paul II on the same day was "entirely appropriate," as Francis is "very much a pope of the New Evangelization, which he understands to be a fruit of Vatican II."

Both Pope Francis and John Paul II share a profound continuity of vision, contrary to the view popularized by media, said Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, a Catholic liberal arts college based in Front Royal, Va.

"I think you find two very kindred spirits," said O’Donnell, who was appointed by John Paul II to the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Like John Paul II, Pope Francis has taken advantage of mass media to communicate his message, and he has stressed personal relationships — what he calls a "culture of encounter." Pope Francis’ evangelistic outlook in Evangelii Gaudium, the roadmap for his papacy, also resonates with John Paul II’s inaugural exhortation to "open wide the doors to Christ."

O’Donnell pointed out that both popes also put the Church’s moral teachings in the light of a firm "Yes" to Christ.

"In [John Paul’s] first encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, [he] said that if we get Jesus right, we’ll get these other things right," he said.

O’Donnell noted that Pope John Paul II put Jorge Bergoglio on the world stage as archbishop and then as cardinal of Buenos Aires. He noted that both appeared to have "a deep bond of affection and mutual respect."

He noted that Pope Francis’ preaching on the Church’s "beautiful" preferential option for the poor is "almost word for word" with John Paul II’s preaching on visits to Mexico and developing nations. Pope Francis has also elaborated on the "culture of waste" that undergirds the "culture of death" John Paul II warned about.

"The two men, even though they have different backgrounds, have a real love for the poor, a real desire to strengthen people in the faith and to work in a very strong, positive way for social justice," said O’Donnell.


Quoting John Paul II

Veteran Argentinian Catholic journalist Jorge Rouillon told the Register that it’s much easier to document John Paul II’s influence on Pope Francis than is the case with John XXIII, because John Paul II served as pope for most of the period that Jorge Bergoglio was a bishop. "Thus, logically, he quoted John Paul II many times in homilies and pastoral letters," Rouillon noted.

A striking example of then-Archbishop Bergoglio’s referencing of John Paul II occurred in 1998, Rouillon recalled, when the pope’s visit to Cuba prompted the archbishop to publish a book reflecting on the dialogue between John Paul II and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Reviewing John Paul II’s many other papal journeys, Archbishop Bergoglio commented, "In every people that the pope visits, his message and presence are translated into realities of peace and freedom that establish him therefore as the valid interlocutor between the Church and states."

And in a passage that foreshadows the papal approach he would embrace himself 15 years later, Archbishop Bergoglio stressed that, in the dialogue between the Church and humanity, "the pope not only fulfills the role of spokesman, of one who transmits the word of Christ, but also he becomes receptor of the voice of the world, of human society."

Added the archbishop, "The role of the Church, and especially that of the Vicar of Christ, is one of liberating, dialoguing and participating, in order to build communion between men and the Church."

Pope Francis is greatly advancing the work of John XXIII and John Paul II in creating close ties between Catholics and the Jewish people. Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress (WSJ), said the three popes have had the "warmest relationships in their attitudes toward the Jewish people probably in history."

"With these three popes, you have the embodiment of dramatic and positive change in Catholic reaction to, attitudes towards and teachings about Judaism that has taken place over the past 50-plus years," he said.

John XXIII "changed the dynamic" of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, Rosensaft said, by writing the initial drafts of what would eventually become the "watershed" document Nostra Aetate (The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), a Vatican II document that emphasized the common lineage of the Jewish and Christian people, while de-emphasizing the previously highlighted role of the Jews in Christ’s death.

Rosensaft added that John Paul II went to great lengths to strengthen those bonds throughout his papacy.

Pope Francis entered into the papacy with numerous Jewish friends from Argentina, in particular his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who is accompanying him to the Holy Land in May.

Both John XXIII and John Paul II, Rosensaft said, were essential players in making the dialogue bear fruit that Pope Francis is now reaping, as he advances the relationship between Catholics and Jews to new levels of mutual respect and understanding.

He said, "Its embodiment is in someone like Pope Francis, for whom warm and positive relations with Jews have become totally intuitive."