Cut from the same cloth

With the April 27 dual canonizations of Popes St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, much has been made of the differences between the two pontiffs. But the two have plenty in common — even beyond the obvious and most important connections of the Catholic Faith they both embraced and the important role they both played at the helm of the universal Church. Here are a few interesting things they share.

1. Humble beginnings

The parents of Angelo Roncalli (who became John XXIII) were tenant farmers who didn’t own the land they lived on. On a small farm outside a village in the Lombardy region of Italy, they worked hard to raise and feed their 14 children. The family of Karol Wojtyla (who became John Paul II) was just a little better off. His father was an army lieutenant, and his mother took in sewing to help bring in extra money. The family of five rented the second-floor apartment of a house in the small Polish town of Wadowice.

2.  Early family sorrow

Wojtyla CNS photo
Roncalli CNS photo

When Roncalli was 2 years old, his older sister Maria Caterina died at age 5. When he was 7, his infant brother died less than a month after birth, and when he was 17, he saw his 2-year-old brother Luigi die as well. Wojtyla’s mother died of kidney and heart problems just a month before he turned 9 years old. Just three years later, he lost his older brother Edmund, who was a doctor.

3. Popes of surprises

The biggest surprise of John XXIII’s pontificate was a whopper: the calling of the Second Vatican Council, the first ecumenical council in a century. Most such councils have been convened to address a major crisis of doctrine or Church life, but in the mid-20th century, the Church seemed to be relatively at peace and thriving, so Vatican II was unexpected. John Paul II, as the first non-Italian pope in nearly half a millennium, was a surprise from the start. Big surprises of his long pontificate include his extensive world travels, his dramatic requests for forgiveness for the sins of the Church, the numerous canonizations and beatifications he authorized, the spectacular World Youth Day celebrations and renewed dialogue with other religions.

4. Popes of peace

Pope John XXIII played a significant role in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which pulled the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Several months later, he published the historic encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), insisting that peace could only come through respect for human rights around the globe. Like Pope John, Pope John Paul II was widely recognized for his efforts on behalf of peace in the world. He convoked the startling World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy, on Oct. 27, 1986, which saw 160 leaders of various world religions gather. He repeated the event in 1993 to pray for an end to the war in Bosnia and again in 2002, just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

5. Political authority

Both popes supported the controversial idea of the need for a more developed global political authority. In Pacem in Terris, Pope John taught that a global authority is necessary to address the growing number of problems with global dimensions. John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace in 2003, repeated this call, speaking of “the obvious need for a public authority, on the international level, with effective capacity to advance the universal common good.”

6. Human rights

human rights
CNS photo

John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris remains to this day the Catholic Church’s most exhaustive and authoritative statement about human rights, and it has fueled human rights activism by Catholics for generations. Pope John Paul II was one of the world’s foremost defenders of human rights, a role he carried out in major addresses to the United Nations and in the way he addressed troubling problems in countries such as the Soviet Union, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Indonesia.

7. Same tomb space

After his death in 1963, John XXIII was entombed in the Vatican grottoes, an area in the lower level of St. Peter’s Basilica shared by the tombs of many other popes, not far from the tomb of St. Peter himself. His body was moved in 2001, following his beatification, to the main level of the Basilica, under the St. Jerome altar. Following John Paul II’s death in 2005, his body was placed in the space that had previously been Pope John’s tomb. But his body was moved up to the main floor of the basilica, too, following his own beatification in 2011. It is now beneath the altar of the chapel of St. Sebastian, directly beside Michelangelo’s famous statue, the Pietà.

8. Devotion to St. Joseph


John XXIII publicly acknowledged that he had considered taking the name Joseph when he was elected pope, in honor of Mary’s husband. He named St. Joseph as the patron of the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps most significantly, he directed that the name of Joseph be added to the Roman Canon in 1962. Pope John Paul II published a major apostolic exhortation on St. Joseph called Redemptoris Custos, “Guardian of the Redeemer,” in 1989.

9. Unusual feast days

A saint’s feast day is typically set as the anniversary of his or her death, but this is not the case for either John XXIII or John Paul II. St. John XXIII’s feast will be observed each year not on June 2, the day of his death, but on Oct. 11, the anniversary of the 1962 opening of the Second Vatican Council. St. John Paul II’s annual feast is set not for April 2, but for Oct. 22, the anniversary of his 1978 inauguration as pope.

10.  Roads to sainthood

In the case of both popes, some part of the formal process of canonization was dispensed with. In July 2013, Pope Francis dispensed with the requirement for a second Vatican-certified miracle in the canonization cause of Pope John XXIII, who had already been beatified in 2000. In May 2005, just a month after John Paul II’s death, his successor Pope Benedict dispensed with the standard five-year waiting period before a cause for canonization can formally be opened, and Pope John Paul II was beatified in May 2011. Both men will be canonized in notably rapid time following their deaths, considering that it is not uncommon for formal recognition of sainthood to take even centuries to happen. John XXIII will be canonized a little more than 50 years after his death, and John Paul II a remarkable nine years after his.

Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99).