Two Popes In The Footprints Of Two Saints

Par Father John Walsh le 8 juillet 2013

In the early Jesus movement a serious dispute arose between Peter and Paul.  Paul held that the new Gentile converts would not be required to be circumcised.  A Council was called in Jerusalem to address the problem.  In the letter to the Galatians commentators have described the confrontation of Peter by Paul as one where the sparks were flying.  The issues:  Are Gentile converts to be circumcised?  And what about following the Mosaic Law?  

The pertinent record of the Council is found in the Acts of the Apostles chapters 10 and 15.  

Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." …   The judgment was that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15:1,40.) 

Paul himself says that he has been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter has been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised.  

Peter is the head of the twelve but history has yet to identify him as the first Pope.  Paul is expanding the membership of the community to include new members who were not of the Jewish tradition.  What is clear is that the confrontation of Peter and Paul would later be labelled  as two different approaches to the Church, Petrine and Pauline.  

However, I believe the confrontation and resolution of the quandary are recounted in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.     

James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship that we should extend our hand to the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.    (Galatians 2:7-9)

Jump forward almost two millennia and the announcement that Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II have been cleared by Pope Francis for canonization.  Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council and in his opening address to the Council Fathers (2200 Bishops from throughout the world) presents the Council as a “pastoral” aggiornamento, updating or renewal, of the Church.  The vision that resulted situated the Church as “the people of God” in the Modern World.  The Church envisioned for the future could be seen as a Pauline Church, open to the circumstances in which the Church found herself in the early 1960’s and into the future.  Pope John Paul II who was elected in the 1980s offered a vision of the Church which resulted in what is described as “restorationist,” kindling the sparks of the past into fires of debate about a pre-Vatican II Church and a post-Vatican II Church.  It is a Petrine Church centred on Rome and the authority of the Papacy.  As a result of John Paul’s 27 years at the helm, the church has steered away from the deep structural changes that are needed.  The confrontations of these two models of Church have caused the Church’s progressive elements in a missionary church to be held in check and permitted a maintenance church to defend the status quo.  How can two Popes follow in the footsteps of two saints holding two differing visions?  Is there a resolution to the modern confrontation of two visions of the Church?        

Pope John XXIII and John Paul II are presented together for canonization by Pope Francis. Francis, in his brief presence on the world scene, has identified the Church as a Church with a “preferential option for the poor”  - a servant of the poor.  Outreach to the poor has marked Pope Francis first days and will remain the hallmark of his Papacy if we were to rely on the example of his years as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.   

Francis is presenting all members of the Catholic Church with the challenge go forward with all its members, of all stripes, united in defence of the poor by upholding human rights, by acting with a strong sense of social justice, and by nurturing a profound faith in the historical God who offers us a dialogue with all people to heal the world (tiqun olam).  

We just might be on the brink of the revolution begun by John XXIII that will renew not only the Church but bring a renewed understanding of the world as all people reach out to the poor for the betterment of all humanity. John Paul II’s words were often contradictory; however, there is no doubt that he also stood for a Church that is beyond doctrinal disputes: “The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.”

Two Popes, soon to be declared saints, can be seen following in the footsteps of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  The original confrontation of Peter and Paul was resolved but it has been relived in our own age.  Now, once and for all time, the resolution may be within our grasp as we were reminded when Pope Francis spoke to the members of the press on the third day after his election:

“How I wish for a Church that is poor, and for the poor.”  

Popes walk in the footprints of saints and today we are called to walk in the footprints of Saint Francis. 


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