Popes, Saints and the Missions

A saintly connection, with a missionary theme. It’s what St. John Paul II offered when marking the centenary of the birth of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI. “In mentioning Concesio, the birthplace of Giovanni Battista Montini [Pope Paul VI],” he said in 1997, “I naturally think of his family home and the baptismal font where he received the sacrament of new birth on the very day that — how can we fail to remember it? — the soul of St. Thérèse of Lisieux departed this world. We can certainly link the spirituality of this Carmelite saint with the religious desire of Pope Paul VI, who expressed his great love for Christ through his long, wise service to the Church.”

Pope Paul VI also recognized that connection. “I was born to the Church the day St. Thérèse was born to heaven,” he said. With that link to the patroness of the Missions and missionaries, how fitting that Pope Francis beatify Paul VI on World Mission Sunday this year (October 19). And in this month of World Mission Sunday, it seems fitting as well to look at the mission connections of the two Popes canonized this past April — John XXIII and John Paul II — both elected to the papacy in “Mission Month” (October).

St. John XXIII and ‘Missionary Circles’

According to the Vatican biography of St. John XXIII, 1921 marked the “beginning of the second phase of his life: his service to the Holy See.” It was at that time that he was called to Rome by then Pope Benedict XV to lead in Italy the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for the Missions of the Church. He visited many Italian dioceses and organized “Missionary Circles,” seeking prayer and support — just as did the foundress of the Society for Propagation of the Faith, Pauline Jaricot.

He would recall those days in a message to then National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (see more in sidebar story) in 1961: “Among the most pleasant memories I cherish of my years in the priesthood are those in which I dedicated my zeal and energies to the charity for the Propagation of the Faith.”

Elected Pope in Mission Month, on Oct. 28, 1958, he convened the Second Vatican Council a year later, in 1962. Among the Council documents was Ad Gentes, the decree on the missionary activity of the Church. Collaborators on that document included Bishop Sheen, a Bishop at the Council, and Bishop Karol Józef Wojtyla — later Pope and now St. John Paul II — as well as Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

Dying on June 3, 1963, the day after Pentecost that year, St. John XXIII was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 3, 2000.

St. John Paul II on the Roads of the World

After studying in secret for the priesthood, as his home country was occupied by Nazi forces, St. John Paul II, as a bishop in his native Poland, would take part in the Second Vatican Council, convened by now St. John XXIII.

Elected Pope on Oct. 16, 1978, the Monday before World Mission Sunday that year, he would take the message of the Gospel to 129 countries on 104 trips outside of Italy (including seven to the United States). As Pope he used his trips as traveling pulpits — speaking out against hunger in Africa, denouncing the arms race in Hiroshima, praising the virtue of generosity to the poor in Calcutta.

He encouraged young people to be missionaries. “Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’ It is you who must ‘go out into the byroads’ and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for His people.” Such was his message to youth people gathered in 1993 in Denver for World Youth Day, a program he launched, which continues today.

As Catholic News Service summed it up at the time of his death in 2005: “Whether at home or on the road, he aimed to be the Church’s most active evangelizer, trying to open every corner of human society to Christian values.”

Of the principal documents he wrote — including 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions and 45 apostolic letters — one was Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer), his encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate. The document was published to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council and its decree on missionary activity Ad Gentes, and the 15th anniversary of the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, (Evangelization in the Modern World) issued by Pope Paul VI — now on his own path to sainthood. “Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!” wrote St. John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio (No. 2). And, he noted: “No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (No. 3).

Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, which he had instituted — and on which day both he and St. John XXIII were canonized this past April. He had been beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011.

Pope Paul VI and His Messages

In 1938, while working in the Vatican office of the Secretary of State, Pope Paul VI, then Father Montini, wrote to the Carmel of St. Thérèse in Lisieux, noting he had been following “for a long time and with the liveliest interest the development of the convent.” He mentioned his “great devotion to St. Thérèse, a little relic of whom I keep on my work table.”

Taking the name of the great missionary Apostle, St. Paul, Pope Paul VI would be one of the most traveled popes in history — the first to visit five continents. His visits included the Holy Land, India, the United States, Uganda and the Philippines. And he would be deeply affected by what he saw on those journeys. His encyclical on peace and development, Populorum Progressio “On the Development of Peoples”), came from his experience of devastating poverty and conflict in the Developing World. And, of course, his encyclical on evangelization in the modern world, Evangelii Nuntiandi, set the missionary task as life-changing for all: “Evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (No. 18).

Three Popes, each unique, all missionaries — examples to lead and inspire on our own path to holiness, in “Mission Month” and throughout the year.

MONICA YEHLE is director of communications and outreach for the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, and editor of Mission magazine.

Fulton Sheen and the Saints