Saints’ teachings shaped the modern Church

The canonizations of Popes St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II mark not only the raising to the altars of arguably the two most beloved pontiffs of the 20th century but the opportunity to reflect on the remarkable writings of these two holy popes.

Both served during periods of great political, social and intellectual upheaval, and both called on the human family to embrace peace amidst the threat of nuclear annihilation. Above all, the two new saints were united by their abiding concern for the dignity of the human person in the modern world. 

Prolific writer

John was pope for less than five years, but he proved a prolific writer with nearly 150 apostolic constitutions and letters, mostly establishing new dioceses around the globe and preparing the details of the Second Vatican Council, as well as dozens of speeches and homilies. His most significant writings, however, were his eight encyclicals.

John’s encyclicals, or major teaching documents, ranged from honoring St. John Vianney and Pope St. Leo the Great, to a reflection on the Rosary and the need for penance, especially in preparation for the council. Two encyclicals are remembered most, Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”) in 1961 and Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”) in 1963.

In Mater et Magistra, John made his contribution to Catholic social thought and anticipated the work of the council, most so its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, in his call for the Church “to humanize and to Christianize this modern civilization of ours” (No. 256). John taught that the Church must be a voice for the poor and the defenseless and called on the world to work together for unity and the common good.  

Similarly, Pacem in Terris, issued only a few months before his death from cancer, was addressed not only to the Catholic faithful but “all men of good will.” It created quite a stir when it was released: a papal reflection on the Cold War, the struggle between the free world and the communist countries and the immense peril of nuclear war.

The pope declared in his first sentence: “Peace on earth, which all people of every era have most eagerly yearned for, can be firmly established and sustained only if the order laid down by God be dutifully observed” (No. 1).

Record setter

John Paul II committed himself firmly to carrying forward the great concerns of John and the council for the dignity of the human person in a world of increasing complexity and interdependence. 

In doing so, he proved the greatest papal writer of all time, with 14 encyclicals, 14 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters, hundreds of homilies and countless speeches, including 1,161 weekly general audiences.

Pope St. John Paul II
Pope St. John Paul II, right, wrote an unprecedented amount of material during his 26-year papacy. CNS photo

He wrote in his first major document, the 1979 encyclical Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”), “the time that is approaching the end of the second millennium of the Christian era, shows itself a time of great progress, it is also seen as a time of threat in many forms for man. The Church must speak of this threat to all people of good will and must always carry on a dialogue with them about it” (No. 16). 

He wrote about the oppressive system of communism and the problems of economic inequality. And then, after the fall of the communist system, he wrote of the crisis of the human person caused by secular materialism and relativism.

He authored several encyclicals on Catholic social thought such as Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”), 1981; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concerns”), 1988; and Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year,” on the anniversary of Leo XIII’s famed encyclical Rerum Novarum), 1991, John Paul’s meditation on the world after the fall of communism.

He said in a 1993 speech, “The de-Christianizing of society includes not only an increasing indifference to religion, a loss of faith, but also an obscuring of the moral sense.” John Paul made recapturing an authentic moral sense one of the centerpieces of his program for the Church. This entailed the rejection of the culture of death in favor of the culture of life and a civilization of love. The two most profound expressions of his moral magisterium were the encyclicals Veritatis Splendor  (“The Splendor of the Truth”) in 1993 and Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) in 1995.

Veritatis Splendor re-taught certain fundamental truths of the Church’s moral teaching in response to what the pontiff called modern society’s struggle with a “crisis of truth” that has the “most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church, as well as for a just and fraternal social life.” The pope’s solution was to proclaim “the splendor of the truth.”

In Evangelium Vitae, the pope took up the cause of the “great multitude of weak and defenseless human beings,” most so the unborn and sick and dying. The pontiff defends human dignity and responds to “scientifically and systematically programmed threats” against life.

John Paul’s other writings touched on a host of issues, including his love for the Blessed Mother in the encyclical Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”) in 1987 and the Rosary in Rosarium Virginis Mariae (“The Rosary of the Virgin Mary”) in 2002; Christian unity in Ut Unum Sint (“That All May Be One”) in 1995; the dignity of women in his famed apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and his “Letter to Women” (1995); the meaning of Christian Suffering in Salvifici Doloris (1984); and promoting the sacramental life of the Church, most so the Eucharist in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“Church of the Eucharist”) in 2003, and penance in Misericordia Dei (“On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance”) in 2002.

Lasting words

Both John and John Paul II also are remembered for their personal writings.

John’s “Journal of a Soul,” a diary of daily thoughts over the whole of his life, is ranked as a spiritual classic. John Paul wrote the international best seller “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (1994), a series of reflections on God, prayer, religion and the New Evangelization that sold more than 1 million copies and was translated into dozens of languages.

The next years will provide further opportunity to study and to apply the prophetic teachings of these two new saints in new circumstances.

As Pope John wrote in the 1961 apostolic constitution, Humanae salutis:

“While humanity is at the threshold of a new age, immensely serious and broad tasks await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of her history. It is a question in fact of bringing the perennial life-giving energies of the Gospel to the modern world ...”

Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.