Tradition and spirit (May 3 column on canonization of the two Popes reposted)

May 19, 2014 at 1:54am

For the Catholic Church, breaking tradition does not happen too often. Indeed, it has been said that, in many ways, what sets the Catholic Church apart from other Christian denominations is the belief that the “deposit of faith”, that is Jesus Christ’s revelations, are not only contained in the Holy Scriptures but have been passed to successive generations through the sacred tradition. Tradition is sacred to the Catholic Church not only insofar as its sacred teachings are concerned but also even on how it conducts its liturgies and ceremonies.

However, during the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, we have witnessed something unique and unusual. On this solemn occasion we saw on the center stage four pontiffs; the “festival of four Popes” as the Italians describe last Sunday’s event. This was fitting because all four Popes have in fact broken with tradition during their papacies.


On 28 February 2013, the world was taken by surprise by Pope Benedict’s decision to step down as leader of the Catholic Church. In doing so, he became the first pope to abdicate since Pope Gregory XII in 1415 (who did so in order to end the Western Schism), and the first to do so voluntarily since Pope Celestine V in 1294. In the modern era this was unprecedented since popes are expected to hold the position from election until death. Moved by the spirit, Pope Benedict made a radical decision.


Pope Francis of course has been surprising the world, the Vatican included. In his call for rejecting worldliness or for the Church to “find a new balance” between insisting on its moral teaching and proclaiming the Gospel “in a missionary style”, his exhortations to evangelize and share the Gospel in Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), and above all his ability to be present especially to those in the periphery, Pope Francis has renewed the Church in ways his fellow Cardinals, who elected him, a little more than a year go, probably did not expect.  Isn’t this the spirit acting in this Pope who has made the mercy of God and the joy of faith as his daily exhortation?

Like Pope Francis, John Paul II also broke a lot of church traditions in life. In fact, many might not be aware that a lot of today’s papal traditions were innovations made by him. The biggest of this, in my mind, was his launching of World Youth Day in 1984, an event that has converted so many young people from all over the world. As the traveling Pope, he brought the gospel directly to the people by visiting 129 countries in a papacy that lasted more than 27 years.


Perhaps among the four Popes who shared the center stage last Sunday, Pope John XXIII was the least known by this generation. Pope John XXIII, because of his advanced age when he was elected to the papacy, was considered by many as a transitional or “stop gap” pope. Yet he proved everyone wrong when almost immediately upon his election he announced an ecumenical council—a general meeting of all bishops around the world. To this day, we experience the far-reaching and deep-seated effects of Vatican Council II in the life of the church and of the faithful.


Even in death, Saints John XXIII and John Paul II broke long-held Church traditions. The former was canonized without waiting for the required two verifiable miracles attributed to the candidate after death. As a matter of tradition also, the canonization process must wait for 5 years after the candidate’s death. But this was dispensed in the case of St. John Paul whose canonization process began weeks after his passing. As well known Vatican expert John Allen described it, the canonization of these two Popes shows that the Catholic Church is the most democratic of all institutions. It didn’t matter that rules were broken to recognize their sainthood—the important thing was that this was widely accepted.


For John Paul II, the devotion of millions, in Poland and elsewhere, is undisputed. For me, it is not so much his theology that attracted me to this Pope who loved the Philippines. But it was his heroic witnessing in his last years; afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, he continued to serve the universal Church as our pastor, without complaining, with generosity and in joy in fact.


As for John XXIII, I was reminded last Sunday of how elder generations of Italians looked up to the “The Good Pope”. I personally saw this when I lived in 1980-81 in Udine, Italy with around 30 persons with disabilities and the Catholics in that house (we also had quite a number of communists, socialists, anarchists and radicals, who were mostly atheists) carried pictures of Pope John XXIII everywhere. My friends had a special attraction to Pope John because he was the patriarch of nearby Venice before becoming Pope.


And so, the two popes were conferred sainthood together. Politically, this was a master stroke by Pope Francis, as in doing so the new Pope was able to reach out to both conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic, sending out a message that ideology must give way to the gospel. But more than the politics, the twin canonization sent a message to all men and women of faith, one can be imperfect, one may have made mistakes, but it is still possible to be holy. Didn’t Leon Bloy, whom Pope Francis quoted early in his pontificate (“He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”) also say: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”


Tradition is good. But it moves always with the spirit.


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