Rome — As I arrived here for the historic “@2popesaints” (as Twitter would have it) celebration, the skies above Rome could not have been clearer. The sun itself seemed to have a renewed Easter glory with almost a merciful shine: providing an unvarnished vision for all, while not leaving much to shadows. And yet, as it does, night fell. As I walked along the Tiber, rats lined my path. Above the dome of St. Peter’s, bats circled.
Perhaps Pope Francis was looking out the window as he prepared his sermon for the Friday-morning Mass here. He talked about the danger that Christians can fall into if they do not nourish their faith in genuine encounter with Jesus Christ in the sacraments and through loving people with honesty and selflessness and vulnerability. The Passion and death of Christ, he said — and the burdens and challenges and difficulties and evils in life — can make us fearful and keep us in darkness, not living in or sharing the light of hope that marks Easter and Christianity itself.
Pope Francis, the author last year of “The Joy of the Gospel,” continues this theme of warning against being fearful of joy. “Be not afraid,” is how Pope John Paul II, one of the two men whose sainthood Catholics are flooding Rome to celebrate, put it.
Pope Francis diagnosed the problem as “a Christian’s disease.” He said: “We’re afraid of joy. It’s better to think: Yes, yes, God exists, but He is there. Jesus has risen and He is there. Somewhat distant. We’re afraid of being close to Jesus because this gives us joy.” We are unsettled and challenged by joy. And so, in our fear, we hide. He described those who “prefer sadness to joy. They move about better in the shadows, not in the light of joy, like those animals who only come out at night, not in the light of day, who can’t see anything. Like bats.”
It’s a Christian’s disease to stay stuck in habits that keep us from excelling in virtue. And it does a disservice to people of all faiths and of no faith, who need to see women and men of hope.
Much of the media coverage of events in the eternal city surrounding the joint canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II misses the palpable, contagious joy here. Much of the focus has been, as tends to happen, on controversy. At times the media are so stubbornly insistent on it as to miss the story.
The reason for the millions gathered here for Divine Mercy Sunday is the “Holy Roman double-header” canonization of long-reigning pontiff John Paul II, estimated to have seen more people in person than anyone else in human history, and John XXIII, perhaps best known for having convened the Second Vatican Council, which has had reverberations in the Church and the world ever since. They are being recognized as saints, an acknowledgment of holy lives that demonstrated heroic virtue. This isn’t like winning an Emmy Award — it’s not a matter of dinners and plaques, but a celebration of what the Christian life is. It’s not just popes who are called to holiness, but every woman or man who professes to be Christian.
The breaking news, it would seem, in canvassing some of the commentary, is that neither man was perfect. Bingo! as we say in Catholic culture. Pope Francis celebrates these two men because they knew themselves to be sinners. Who else but a sinner needs a Savior? This is what it means to be Christian. The Christian uses his God-given free will to choose to surrender to this deeper, eternal reality. It’s a challenging, radically countercultural existence. It’s not easy, and it is not always lived. And the Church exists to help along the way, so that all who are part of the Church family grow in holiness by encountering Christ in the sacraments and in prayer and service.
In a series of messages on commercial radio this Holy Week and Easter, Catholic Voices USA, a group I work with, and New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan invited people to join us. The Gospel tells us to be missionaries in the world, to serve women and men and to do so with joy. And so two of the messages began with Mother Agnes Donovan from the Sisters of Life naming some of the apostolate who serve mothers and families (Visitation Mission), the elderly (the Little Sisters of the Poor), young people, and culture, to name a few. This is the life of the Church. And it’s filled with compelling stories of redemption and transformation.
Stories that might prompt the exclamation “Alleluia!”
It can seem the spontaneous refrain here in Rome. On the streets, I’ve seen pilgrims just break out in song. Inside the churches at daily Masses — which you can trip over, they are so plentiful, particularly with the influx — it’s the word of the Easter season — off limits during the penitential season of Lent, now sung out in gratitude. At the end of the Mass during this Easter octave, a double Alleluia! is added to the standard closing, “Thanks be to God!” (Exclamation point added for emphasis and Eucharistic gratitude.) Even the sun over Rome seems to be as bright as the Gospel of renewal preached in the Risen One, who is the pilgrims’ reason for being here. Christians believe our deepest identity is a Savior who rose from the dead and defeated sin. If you believe this, surely it’s something to be happy about!
As I write, it’s happening again. There are people singing Alleluia! outside my window near St. Peter’s Square. It’s the word. It’s the story. It’s the focus. And I am overwhelmed walking the crowded streets: Like the tender illumination provided by the sun, these people are a light you want in your world. Not because they will wake you up with their songs, but because they will fill families, communities, and workplaces with love.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.