How Popes John XXIII and John Paul II embraced the world

These two popes, being canonized this weekend, created the Catholic church for which I, a Protestant, can work

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As you read this, I am in Rome for the canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. You could say that it’s business since I’m the communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and I’m not Catholic. But it’s very personal. I could not have written that last sentence if the two of them hadn’t been elected pope in 1958 and 1978, respectively. They weren’t simply leaders of an institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. They were leaders of global Christianity whose ministry touched virtually every human being, Catholic or otherwise.

Born mid-baby boom and raised in the Episcopal Church, I have no memory of the Second Vatican Council, which Pope John called when I was a toddler and opened when I was in kindergarten. My earliest ecumenical wisdom, imparted by my mother, consisted of two facts: A) If we visited a Catholic church, I had to wear a hat and B) While I could go to Catholic Mass if a friend invited me to St. Albert’s, I could not reciprocate with an invitation to All Saints because Catholics weren’t allowed to go to any other church.

By third grade, all of that had changed. My family felt the impact powerfully less than a decade later.

Many of my parents’ friends were Catholic liturgical musicians, which is why the pastor of St. Albert’s was often a guest at our parties. When my father died all too young, the funeral was at All Saints Episcopal Church but the choir was from St. Albert’s Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had been gone for 11 years, but the window he opened into the Catholic Church let my family see the love that was inside.

For most of my 33 years as a religion reporter, I covered Pope John Paul II. You might say that he climbed out the window that Pope John had opened, not in any doctrinal sense but by becoming a traveling evangelist for the Catholic faith. People, especially young people, who would never dream of reading a papal encyclical flocked to hear him preach that God loves them, that God loves everyone and that the human rights and dignity of every single person are rooted in that love. Through Vatican II, Pope John had written religious freedom into the constitution of the church; Pope John Paul would apply those teachings in ways that helped to bring the Iron Curtain crashing down.

The two popes had different backgrounds that gave them different perspectives on the church, but they shared a crucial bond as men who had actively resisted the Nazis during World War II. The college student Karol Wojtyla staged forbidden plays that undermined Nazi teaching in occupied Poland while the papal diplomat Archbishop Angelo Roncalli smuggled falsified baptismal certificates so that Jewish children could escape extermination. Both saw people of all faiths band together to resist evil. It imbued both with the burning conviction that all people of good will must work together to right wrongs no matter what their other differences.

The impact of these two popes on Christian-Jewish relations was profound. The council that Pope John called repudiated the unofficial but widespread Catholic belief that all Jews were guilty of crucifying Jesus. Pope John Paul, who had grown up with Jews and knew many who were murdered in the Holocaust, became the first pope since St. Peter to preach in a synagogue. He made “Never again!” a hallmark of his pontificate.

Both were popes whose earlier lives had brought them into contact with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Both sensed that Christians had inflicted the worst of blows on Christianity when the Western and Eastern wings of the faith divorced each other more than 1,000 years earlier.

Though neither had had much contact with Protestants, Pope John had been influenced by the Benedictine Abbot Lambert Beauduin, who had been removed from church posts for being too friendly with my people, the Anglicans. From him, Pope John formed a deep conviction that all of the splintered Christian communities must work together toward unity; that unity wasn’t simply a case of Catholic missionaries bringing penitents back into the fold. Consequently, Pope John insisted that official Orthodox and Protestant observers participate in Vatican II. He created a Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, which would draft some of the most important documents during and after the council.

The council’s Decree on Ecumenism was born of Pope John’s vision, though it was issued after his death. It affirmed the importance of Christians praying together and acknowledged the validity of Protestant and Orthodox baptisms, even though the traditions could not share Communion.

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council,” it began. Division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

Of the ancient disputes that divided Orthodox from Catholic and Catholic from Protestant, it said “often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in this separation, and the Catholic Church embraces them as brothers, with respect and affection.”

Pope John’s immediate successor, Pope Paul VI, met with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, so that the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches could revoke the excommunications that their predecessors had inflicted on each other in 1054. Pope John Paul II made reunification with Eastern Orthodoxy the great, though unfulfilled, ecumenical quest of his papacy.

He also sought to build bridges to the Protestants, though the theological obstacles were even greater. He was pope when the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a joint declaration on the meaning of the doctrine of justification, largely resolving the rift that had launched the Protestant Reformation. In his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” Pope John Paul asked Orthodox and Protestant leaders to advise him on ways that the papacy could be exercised for the benefit of Christian unity. When he traveled to nations where Catholics had persecuted those of other traditions he offered a sincere apology.

In 2000, in an ecumenical prayer service at the Roman Colosseum, he honored martyrs of the Orthodox and Protestant traditions alongside Catholic martyrs. He said that their witness “is a patrimony shared by all the churches and ecclesial communities. It is a heritage that speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division. The ecumenism of the martyrs and of the witnesses to the faith is the most convincing of all; to the Christians of the 20th century it shows the path to unity.”

That path to unity is long and sometimes painful. It will be traveled slowly. I’m one of the pilgrims along its way, happy to tell the story of the church in which St. John XXIII opened the window so I could see in, and where St. John Paul II went outside to extend hospitality. Whether or not you believe in papal authority, in saints or even in God, they touched all of us.

Ann Rodgers, a former Post-Gazette religion writer, is communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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