Canonization is always a special event in the Catholic Church. But history will be made two days from now as two recent popes—both of whom have had a profound effect on the Church, her theology, and the world—will be elevated to sainthood.
The first of these, Pope John XXIII, presided over the opening of the Second Vatican Council. That alone made him a controversial pope in the eyes of those with the misguided notion that convening this council was the beginning of modernism in the Church. The fact is that the council did not open the doors to error. The misinterpretation of Vatican II documents was preceded by years of misguided attitudes propagated by wayward priests, bishops, and lay theologians.
But that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, Pope John XXIII had the most honorable of intentions. He opened the council on October 11, 1962, saying among other things: “The Church has always opposed . . . errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”
Though he died just eight months later, the phrase “medicine of mercy” has been tossed about like Frisbee. Some have interpreted it to mean that Vatican II documents teach that it is better to be kind than it is to expect the adherence to truth and the avoidance of sin. This attitude could not be further from the truth.
For example, in May 1961, Pope John XXIII taught in Mater et Magistra:
We must solemnly proclaim that human life is transmitted by means of the family, and the family is based upon a marriage which is one and indissoluble and, with respect to Christians, raised to the dignity of a sacrament. The transmission of human life is the result of a personal and conscious act, and, as such, is subject to the all-holy, inviolable, and immutable laws of God, which no man may ignore or disobey. He is not therefore permitted to use certain ways and means which are allowable in the propagation of plant and animal life.
Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact. From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God. Those who violate His laws not only offend the divine majesty and degrade themselves and humanity, they also sap the vitality of the political community of which they are members.
Here we find the Holy Father illuminating the undeniable truth that respecting human dignity is not optional if one desires to live in a way that is pleasing to God. In other words, living in accordance with Catholic teaching means accepting and sharing the “medicine of mercy.” Nothing in Vatican II documents denies this.
Further, Pope John Paul II taught in 1995, “Despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree.”
We can conclude, therefore, that genuine mercy can only be communicated if we understand this virtue and how we must live it, speak it, and share it. Aquinas tells us that mercy signifies our grief for the sins of another person. Expressing this requires our conscious decision to aid someone in error—showing him the wrongdoing and helping him find in Christ the will to repent.
Whether that action involves abortion, contraception, or other threats to the human person, when we become the ministers of the medicine of mercy we help them by sharing truth in love. We are, by our lives and actions, guiding the wayward to encounter truth, repentance, and forgiveness.
This is the essence of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II’s legacy.
So, as we think about these soon-to-be saints, let us ask each of them to intercede for us that we may courageously oppose cruelty toward every one of our brothers and sisters while administering the medicine of mercy to a culture filled with human beings suffering sexual chaos.