So Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are now saints. This doesn’t worry me the way it worries some people. I study history, and I know very well that a decree of sanctity is not a declaration that absolutely everything an individual said or did was holy or good. In the Patristic period, you need only look at St Jerome or St Cyril of Alexandria to understand that many saints have had flaws, perhaps serious flaws. To my mind that is encouraging; in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, you can read that the infant St Nicholas was accustomed to refusing his mother’s milk on fast days. That, with all due reverence to St Nicholas, is no use to me. If perfect behaviour from infancy is necessary for me to become a saint, then it is all over with me, because even now I remain deeply flawed, as all my friends will cheerfully confirm. The Church is simply saying that these two men, Pope John and Pope John Paul are in heaven and can intercede for us. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to accept that everything they were, did and said is now part of the extraordinary magisterium.
Pope John was the Pope when I was born; I learnt a real reverence for him from his Journal of a Soul, and I have no difficulty at all in recognising his sanctity. I give no credence whatever to certain accusations of Freemasonry and all that stuff. As regarding his liturgical preferences; well, he reversed some of Pope Pius XII's changes, and published on his own authority Veterum Sapientia, confirming the study and use of Latin in the Western Rites as mandatory.
I have a more nuanced reverence for Pope John Paul. I’m not going to go into it here; you can read about it in abundance on the internet. But I will never forget my own personal encounter with him. During Lent 1990 I had been ordained about six months, and was in Rome for a pilgrimage of thanksgiving. A priest of my diocese who worked then in the Secretariat of State had obtained for me a pass to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul in his private chapel at his early morning celebration. Directed by Mgr Dziwisz, and vested in alb and purple stoles, we were ushered in to the papal chapel where the Holy Father was already seated at his chair and prie dieu in prayer. All was in deep silence. It really was rather uncanny; we sat with him as he prayed, but his prayer wasn’t as we prayed; he would, alarmingly, groan aloud and writhe in his chair, and I was rather concerned for him.
Finally he came around, and in front of us vested for Mass, which was celebrated in Italian.
After Mass, we concelebrants and other guests were herded politely into a sort of receiving line. The Holy Father went to each of us, gave us a rosary, and said a few words. When he came to me, I told him in my halting Italian that I was newly ordained; he put his arm around me and hugged me. Yes, he did! And then he said something to me; I told myself right then that I must remember those words for the rest of my life. I promptly forgot them, and cannot remember them since.
What sticks in my mind? How short he was! He is always in the foreground of photographs, so he looks bigger than he actually was. In fact, he was much shorter than me, and I am only of average height. Second; the collar of his cassock was not very clean; clearly a white cassock is harder to keep clean than a black one.
But I will never forget that encounter. His presence was extraordinary.
Leaving the Apostolic Palace by the St Anne Gate, I encountered a slight figure in a black cassock crossing the piazza towards St Peter’s Square. It was Cardinal Ratzinger, heading off for his daily work at the CDF. I smiled at him, and he stopped. We tried languages; my German wasn’t adequate, neither then was his English. So we spoke in Italian: I simply thanked him for all his work, and said what it meant to me as a newly ordained priest. He beamed back at me, and then went off to work. I date my reverence for that man from that day when he spoke to a simple newly-ordained priest with infinite kindness.
So, I have touched a saint. That makes me a third class relic, and you may venerate me.
Form a line.