They Embraced the World Popes John XXIII and John Paul II Created the Catholic Church for Which I, a Protestant, Can Work, Writes Ann Rodgers

By Rodgers, Ann | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

They Embraced the World Popes John XXIII and John Paul II Created the Catholic Church for Which I, a Protestant, Can Work, Writes Ann Rodgers


Rodgers, Ann, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


As you read this, I am in Rome for the canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. You could say that it's business since I'm the communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and I'm not Catholic. But it's very personal. I could not have written that last sentence if the two of them hadn't been elected pope in 1958 and 1978, respectively. They weren't simply leaders of an institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. They were leaders of global Christianity whose ministry touched virtually every human being, Catholic or otherwise.

Born mid-baby boom and raised in the Episcopal Church, I have no memory of the Second Vatican Council, which Pope John called when I was a toddler and opened when I was in kindergarten. My earliest ecumenical wisdom, imparted by my mother, consisted of two facts: A) If we visited a Catholic church, I had to wear a hat and B) While I could go to Catholic Mass if a friend invited me to St. Albert's, I could not reciprocate with an invitation to All Saints because Catholics weren't allowed to go to any other church.

By third grade, all of that had changed. My family felt the impact powerfully less than a decade later.

Many of my parents' friends were Catholic liturgical musicians, which is why the pastor of St. Albert's was often a guest at our parties. When my father died all too young, the funeral was at All Saints Episcopal Church but the choir was from St. Albert's Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had been gone for 11 years, but the window he opened into the Catholic Church let my family see the love that was inside.

For most of my 33 years as a religion reporter, I covered Pope John Paul II. You might say that he climbed out the window that Pope John had opened, not in any doctrinal sense but by becoming a traveling evangelist for the Catholic faith. People, especially young people, who would never dream of reading a papal encyclical flocked to hear him preach that God loves them, that God loves everyone and that the human rights and dignity of every single person are rooted in that love. Through Vatican II, Pope John had written religious freedom into the constitution of the church; Pope John Paul would apply those teachings in ways that helped to bring the Iron Curtain crashing down.

The two popes had different backgrounds that gave them different perspectives on the church, but they shared a crucial bond as men who had actively resisted the Nazis during World War II. The college student Karol Wojtyla staged forbidden plays that undermined Nazi teaching in occupied Poland while the papal diplomat Archbishop Angelo Roncalli smuggled falsified baptismal certificates so that Jewish children could escape extermination. Both saw people of all faiths band together to resist evil. It imbued both with the burning conviction that all people of good will must work together to right wrongs no matter what their other differences.

The impact of these two popes on Christian-Jewish relations was profound. The council that Pope John called repudiated the unofficial but widespread Catholic belief that all Jews were guilty of crucifying Jesus. Pope John Paul, who had grown up with Jews and knew many who were murdered in the Holocaust, became the first pope since St. Peter to preach in a synagogue. He made "Never again!" a hallmark of his pontificate.

Both were popes whose earlier lives had brought them into contact with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Both sensed that Christians had inflicted the worst of blows on Christianity when the Western and Eastern wings of the faith divorced each other more than 1,000 years earlier. …

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