Hope in the Lord — A tale of two saints

Archbishop Kurtz
Archbishop Kurtz

My favorite passage from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, calls us to: “… stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!” (#261)

Pope Francis expresses a new energy and enthusiasm that shouts out and exhorts. Some call it a new confidence and attraction that is filling the atmosphere and bringing new attention to Christ and to the church.

I agree with this characterization and experienced it when so many gathered from every corner of the archdiocese at last Tuesday’s Chrism Mass and again, at last weekend’s Easter Vigil. We had four adult baptisms at the Cathedral of the Assumption, and I felt the excitement of those renewing their baptismal promises and especially those being baptized.

In his fifth century masterpiece, Confessions, St. Augustine wrote about how the beauty of God emerges ever ancient, ever new, as does the presence of holiness in the church. Here is the lovely quote of St. Augustine:

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

This weekend, two great popes will be canonized as saints — two faithful witnesses in the pattern of Jesus Christ. In both men we find the beauty of God that is ever ancient and ever new.

Pope John XXIII was the fourth of 14 children. He was elected pope in 1958 at the age of 76 after eleven ballots. I was in 7th grade when he was elected, and quickly we found out about the beloved new pope who was as surprised as anyone about his election. We know this because he came to Rome with a return train ticket to Venice.

Of course, Pope John XXIII is especially remembered for announcing the Second Vatican Council. One of his early encyclicals came to mind, however, as I prepared for the homily at the Chrism Mass, especially as I spoke about the very moving renewal of priestly promises that I receive each year at this Mass.

I quoted from Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, which was issued on the 100th anniversary of St. John Vianney’s death in 1959. The first three words in Latin say it all: “Sacerdotii nostri primordia,” which is translated as “recalling the first days of our priesthood.”

Good Pope John had a knack, as does Pope Francis, of moving our hearts back to hear the call of Jesus afresh. I am glad he will be recognized as a saint of God!

Pope John Paul II, our second new saint, is equally beloved. I was only six years a priest when he burst onto the world scene through another surprise election of a pope from Poland, who was youthful, bright, courageous, and inspiring! Since many of us grew up with John Paul II, it is wonderful to have him as an intercessor for us in heaven.
I recall studying his many writings as a young priest from his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis on Christ as the redeemer of the world, to Dives In Misericordia, in which he wrote about our God who is “rich in mercy,” to his apostolic exhortations on the family, Familiaris Consortio, and the rich teaching now called the Theology of the Body.

I read eagerly his apostolic exhortation on priesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis, (I Will Give You Shepherds), to renew my priestly fervor, and this encyclical led to a deep renewal in the seminary and ongoing formation of priests throughout the world.

I had the privilege of meeting Pope John Paul II three times. First, in 1981 my brother Georgie and I encountered a John Paul who was vigorous and energetic. Then, in 1997, as I was with classmates celebrating our silver jubilee, I found a John Paul who was moving more slowly and who spoke of Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea. (I am told he saw himself in that sailor hero who spent himself for a great cause at sea.) Lastly, I saw him in 2004, just months before his death, on an ad limina visit as Bishop of Knoxville. My ten-minute visit revealed him to be completely spent but still keenly interested in the life of the church in the United States.

As I invited the priests at the Chrism Mass to answer Pope John XXIII’s call to return to the first days of their priesthood, I shared a 1987 reflection from Pope John Paul II on his vocation story:

“I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest ….Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God? Yet, I know that, at a certain point in my life, I became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: ‘Come, follow me!’….Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest.”

How good that the grace of Christ shines through our new saints! This is a beauty ever ancient and ever new, and we are inspired by it in the lives of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.


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