How saintly popes modeled virtue Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, May. 08, 2014 -- 10:00 AM

On April 27, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) and Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) were recognized as saints of the Catholic Church, and may God be praised for it!

No one with the slightest amount of historical sensibility would doubt that these men were figures of enormous significance and truly global impact.

But being a world historical personage is not the same as being a saint; otherwise neither Thérèse of Lisieux, nor John Vianney, nor Benedict Joseph Labré would be saints.

What is a saint?

So what is it that made these two men worthy particularly of canonization? Happily, the Church provides rather clear and objective criteria for answering this question. A saint is someone who lived a life of "heroic virtue" on earth and who is now living the fullness of God’s life in heaven.

In order to determine the second state of affairs, the Church rigorously tests claims that a miracle was worked through the revered person's intercession. It would be the stuff of another article to examine these processes in regard to the two popes.

But for now, I want to focus on the extraordinary virtues that these two men possessed. When the Church speaks of the virtues, it is referring to the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and courage, as well as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

It wouldn't be possible, within the brief scope of this article, to examine our two new saints in regard to all seven of the virtues, but let us make at least a beginning.

St. John XXIII

Justice is rendering to someone what is due to him, or in more common parlance, doing the right thing. When he was nuncio to Turkey and stationed in Istanbul in the early years of the Second World War, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) saved the lives of many Jews who were threatened by the Nazi terror.

Taking advantage of Turkey's neutral status and the Vatican’s diplomatic connections, Roncalli arranged for transit visas and in some cases forged baptismal certificates in order to facilitate the transit of Jews from Eastern Europe to Palestine.

In the process, he rescued around 24,000 people who otherwise would certainly have found their way to the death camps. This act of extraordinary justice also called, furthermore, for considerable courage.

Roncalli became nuncio to France at an extremely delicate and dangerous period of French history. Charles de Gaulle and his Free French forces had just liberated their country from the Nazis and had begun to settle scores with the collaborationist Petain government and its sympathizers, some of whom were churchmen in high positions.

Roncalli honored the demands of both the French state and the Church. In performing this high-wire act, Roncalli was demonstrating the virtue of prudence, applying moral norms in concrete situations.

Pope John XXIII also exhibited the virtue of hope to a heroic degree, and the best evidence for this is the greatest of his public acts, namely, his summoning of the Second Vatican Council. He resolved to make the Church that he loved a more apt vehicle for the proclamation of Christ to modernity.

St. John Paul II

And now to John Paul II. Karol Wojtyla came of age at one of the darkest moments of the 20th century. When he was 19 years old and just commencing his university career, the Nazis rolled through his native Poland and instigated a reign of terror.

All distinctive forms of Polish culture were cruelly suppressed, and the Church was persecuted. Young Wojtyla displayed heroic courage by joining the underground seminary and forming a small company of players who kept Polish literature and drama alive.

The Nazi tyranny was replaced immediately by the Communist tyranny, and Father and then Bishop Wojtyla was compelled to manifest his courage again. As pope, he stood athwart the Communist establishment and spoke for God, freedom, and human rights.

Karol Wojtyla was a man who exhibited the virtue of justice to a heroic degree. Throughout his papal years, John Paul II was the single most eloquent and persistent voice for human rights on the world stage.

Finally, was Karol Wojtyla in possession of love, the greatest of the theological virtues? The best evidence I can bring forward is the still breathtaking encounter that took place in a grimy Roman jail cell in December of 1983. John Paul II sat down with Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who had, only a year and a half before, fired several bullets into the pope.

John Paul spoke to him, embraced him, listened to him, and finally forgave him. Did John Paul II express love in a heroic way? He forgave the man who tried to kill him; no further argument need be made.

Saints exist, not for themselves, but for the Church. They are models and intercessors for the rest of us here below. We can only give thanks to God who has provided the world with these two new heavenly friends. Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us!

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at