St. John Paul II Taught Us That Sanctity Was Possible in the Modern Age

COMMENTARY: A Personal Memoir From Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino

Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino
Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino (photo: 2006 AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

In 1992, I was just approaching the end of my sixth year as permanent observer to the United Nations in New York. The then-secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, wanted to transfer me to Brazil.

The Holy See’s Diplomatic Service, like those of most countries, seeks to move its ambassadors after an established period of time to stop them from “going native.” Cardinal Sodano, therefore, quite properly wanted me to start packing my suitcase.

Pope St. John Paul II, however, had something to say on the matter: “Martino stays in New York!”

And in New York I stayed … for a further 10 years.

Some people think that Pope John Paul II didn’t take a great deal of interest in ecclesiastical appointments, but my own experience indicates the opposite. What is true is that he didn’t habitually micromanage affairs: He preferred instead to appoint people he trusted, and then delegate to them, trusting in their judgment.

I need to go back a bit in time to show why John Paul kept me in New York. I would routinely be in Rome for various consultations with Rome-based colleagues, and every time I was back, the pope made a point of summoning me to a private lunch (perhaps more accurately described as a one-on-one “interrogation”). He took a huge interest in international politics and would give me rapid-fire questions, one after another. He was extremely well briefed and well informed: What is this I hear about X? Who is this person Y? What will happen at this vote on Z? Which countries are leading the campaign on such and such? Who is working against us on this and that? So it would go on for an intense few hours.

Therefore, when my time was up in New York, the Holy Father was intimately aware that, in 1994, the U.N. was holding its International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo; and in 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Woman, in Beijing. The Pope was well aware that there is a strong population-control agenda at the U.N. and that certain countries — under the more domestically acceptable cover of “women’s rights” — wanted to see abortion promoted as a method of family planning.

The Africans especially were coming under the most immense pressure — with threats of the withdrawal of desperately needed financial support — if they supported the Holy See’s position. On the one hand, they needed international development aid. On the other hand, they knew that they were the target of the Malthusians’ agenda: too many poor black Africans — better if they weren’t born at all. In the end, many of these poor countries chose life, and I will always admire and remember their under-acknowledged heroism.

John Paul was not naive about these dynamics, in part by temperament; in part because of his personal experiences growing up under a regime where words were well known to be diametrically opposed to reality; in part also due to those interrogations he submitted me to at the lunch table in the apostolic palace.

So in New York I stayed, and against all expectations, the Holy See led the opposition to the population-control agenda; and, to this day, the U.N. still does not admit abortion as a method of family planning. This astonishing victory for life — in defense of the poor and a human being’s most basic human right — was only possible with the pope’s proactive support. In fact, without his constant pushing and promoting this message in his constant diplomatic meetings with heads of state and ambassadors in Rome, this result would never have been possible.

This took everybody by surprise. But not me: I knew that when Pope John Paul II had the unborn in his sights he would never give up. He knew that it must fall to the Catholic Church to speak up without compromise for the most vulnerable and voiceless in our society, because, often, there is no one else.

John Paul led the charge at Cairo in ’94 and again at Beijing in ’95, with Cardinal Sodano making sure that everyone understood what was at stake in Rome — and me in New York. I often think there are probably hundreds of millions of children who are alive today due to the difference this one man’s conviction had on the rest of us to do our best.

In 2002, John Paul called me to say that my work in New York was done: I was to come to Rome to lead the work of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace (and in 2006, Pope Benedict added to my responsibilities the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants).

When John Paul told me of my move to Rome, he made sure to tell me that I was to bring my experience fighting for human dignity in the international arena with me: He wanted me to take charge of the publication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

When the tome was finally finished (the pope’s one-word comment when I handed him the copy: “Finally!”), I was invited to lunch. The pope, whom I remember normally didn’t rest from mercilessly interrogating me at the dining table, was for the first time totally silent: He was studying the compendium, looking up entries in the index and then checking them in the body of the book. Every time one of the waiters would diplomatically push his plate of food in front of him as a gentle hint to eat something, he would impatiently brush them away. His final word at the end of the lunch: “Ottimo!” (Excellent!) John Paul, the former actor, was a great showman who never lost his actor’s eye for a good image. I don’t suppose I truly realized until that moment just how important it was to him that this first-rate philosopher was possessed by a pastoral heart deeply concerned that, after the revised Catechism, the contents of the Church’s social doctrine also be readily available to all. And it all had to be perfect!

John Paul’s direct influence on me continues to this day in my continuing work. Since my Curial retirement, I have sought to synthesize these three great roles he entrusted to me in my guidance of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (which my friend and colleague Cardinal Raymond Burke calls “the most important organization promoting human dignity in the world today”): the pro-life, pro-family work at the U.N., my direction of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and the production of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Soon the Dignitatis Humanae Institute hopes to launch a new lay community here in Italy with the special charism of spreading the Gospel in the public square through the promotion of human dignity, bringing together young people from all over the world. I think that the saint young people affectionately call “JP2” would approve!

Talking of saints brings me to my final reflection that I wanted to share with Register readers: I had originally thought to call this article “My memories of working with a saint.” When I was a boy, the idea of actually knowing someone who was canonized seemed disconcertingly strange. Saints were those people alive centuries ago! But it’s not so strange anymore.

John Paul was amazingly driven by the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness, popularizing the idea that we are all called to be saints. Of course, it’s a very Catholic idea, and always has been, but perhaps we needed to be reminded of it.

And reminded of it we certainly were: John Paul canonized 482 saints — more than all of the canonized saints put together since the precursor of today’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints was created by Pope Sixtus V in 1588.

So, in many ways, thanks to him, it doesn’t really seem so exceptional anymore to say, “I knew a saint.” John Paul rather prophetically wanted us to see that sanctity was possible — and achievable — in the modern age. And I think he was successful in this ambition!

Perhaps that’s the greatest, and the most underappreciated, legacy that he left us.

Pope St. John Paul II, old friend, pray for us!



Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino was permanent observer to the United Nations (1986-2002),


president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace (2002-2009)

and president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants (2006-2009).

Since 2010, he has served as honorary president of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute

and in 2014 was nominated by Pope Francis cardinal protodeacon.