Why was Pope John XXIII canonized last Sunday?

The most popular reason given in the extensive media coverage of his and John Paul II’s canonization was that John XXIII was the pope who called the Second Vatican Council. But even if one regards Vatican II as the most important ecclesial event since Pentecost, the act of boldly summoning an ecumenical council alone doesn’t suffice to render one holy. The vast majority of popes who convened councils are not in the hagiographical hall of fame. 

Many others pronounced John XXIII a saint even before Pope Francis formally declared him one because he was so conspicuously and contagiously amiable, easy-going, funny, kind, and warm. He was the “smiling pope” who told parents in his memorable “moonlight speech” to go home, hug their kids and say, “This is a hug from the pope.” Affability, however, is not a heroic virtue. If it were the main canonization criterion, the Liturgical calendar would be overcrowded!

Some proposed that John was deserving of sanctity because in their estimation he was not particularly or offensively Catholic. When John opened wide the windows of the Church to the modern world, they implied, he became patron saint of dissenters, sexual revolutionaries, Liturgical innovators, sanctuary wreck-o-vators, and agents of changing any and all Church teachings and traditions that they found outdated or unpleasant. Such an impression, however, doesn’t even warrant being labeled a caricature, because caricatures are distorted impressions of reality rather than total inventions. 

The reason for his canonization was not because he called a council or was jolly or was the superstar of postmodern secularizing narratives. It’s because he perseveringly strove to become a saint with total dedication from his youngest days. 

John XXIII’s “Journal of a Soul,” the chronicle of his interior life and retreat resolutions from the age of 14 until just before he died, is one of the greatest spiritual works of the 20th century. Reading it, one gets to know him from the inside, from within his own relationship with God and his struggle to correspond to God’s graces. 

At 16, he wrote in that spiritual diary, “I must always be convinced of this great truth: Jesus wants from me  not just mediocre but supreme virtue. He will not be satisfied with me until I have become, or at least have done my utmost, to become holy.” 

A few years later, he noted, “From the wonderful graces that God has poured out into my soul from my childhood until now, it is quite obvious that God wants to make me entirely holy. I must always remain convinced of this. So I must be holy at all costs. The little, and very little it is, that I have done up to this point has been but child’s play. Time is running out.” 

Right before his priestly ordination, he glimpsed that God was calling him to be St. Angelo Roncalli, not a hologram of any other holy one. “The concept of holiness that I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken,” he wrote in his “Journal.” “The method was wrong. From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents, of their virtues. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own lifeblood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances.” 

After his papal election, he was still hard at work trying to convert the vital sap of the Sacraments and the saints into his own spiritual lifeblood. “Everyone calls me ‘Holy Father,’ and holy I must be and will be,” he penned in 1961. “I am indeed very far from attaining this holiness, although my desire and will to succeed in this are wholehearted and determined.”

The means he chose to pursue holiness he set out in the first entry of the “Journal,” when he was only 14. It was to live by a “Rule of Life,” a set of spiritual practices that would help him grow in conformity to Christ. This rule of life began with the “first and main principle” of choosing an “exemplary, prudent and learned” spiritual director. Then he listed a series of daily, weekly, yearly and “always” norms by which he would live. This wasn’t a wish list but, as he wrote in 1912, a catalogue of concrete resolutions about prayer and acts of virtue he committed whole-heartedly to keeping with “absolute fidelity” as his “lifeline.” 

After his death, his former secretary said that John’s “Rules of Life” were truly rules for life. “He copied them out by hand, in minute writing, kept them always by him and constantly observed them, even when he was pope,” now 98-year-old Cardinal Loris Capovilla said. 

They were the blueprint for John’s patient, obstinate growth in sanctity in correspondence to God’s grace. 

His canonization provides an opportunity for all of us to read his “Journal” so that we may learn from him how to absorb the vital sap of his virtue and prayer and turn it into our own lifeblood. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

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