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Do newest Catholic saints have lessons for others?

While group canonizations aren't uncommon in the Roman Catholic Church, Sunday's elevation of two recent popes — John XXIII and John Paul II — is unusual. Some within the church and some outside believe these saints have lessons for everyone.
Mark A. Kellner -- Deseret Digital Media Modified: April 25, 2014 at 10:22 am •  Published: April 28, 2014

WASHINGTON — Nine years ago, Dawn Eden needed help beyond her own resources. She was about to lose her job at the New York Post, a major daily newspaper in Manhattan, and good journalism jobs were hard to come by, even though the crash of 2008 wasn't yet a blip on the horizon.

"I was terribly anxious and thought I would never work again," said Eden, who today is a Catholic writer on spirituality. At the time, however, she was just beginning her exploration of the Roman Catholic faith, and believed that asking a "saint" in heaven to pray for her — something Catholics do daily — "was a form of idolatry," a view held by many non-Catholic faiths.

Then a Catholic friend explained to Eden that she wouldn't be worshipping saints, but only asking them to pray for her. Relieved, Eden prayerfully petitioned St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest and journalist who volunteered for execution at Auschwitz during World War II in place of another man, for his intercession. Kolbe is the patron saint of journalists.

"I thought it would be like in the movies and I would get a promotion. Kind of a superstition to get material wishes," Eden recalled. "What I did receive was grace and peace. I received this very sudden and very definite sense of being at the eye of the storm. Whatever happened to me, I would be OK."

She said asking a saint for prayer "brought me in line with God's will, where I hadn't been before."

On Sunday, the world's nearly 2 billion Roman Catholics will celebrate the canonization by Pope Francis of two new saints: the late popes John XXIII, who died in 1963, and John Paul II, who died nine years ago. These elevations of two beloved church leaders have sparked a renewed interest in what a Catholic saint is, and how believers interact with these people whose names are often shorthand for the truly righteous among all the Christians who've ever lived, at least as recognized by Rome.

Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, said viewing the saints as friends and inspirational figures is the way Catholics should consider them.

"The Catholic Church worships the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that's it. Period," he said. "Others who we very strongly believe are in heaven and are alive … since they are alive, we can contact them through prayer and they can increase our prayers before the throne of God."

Heavenly friends

While the recognition for John XXIII comes a little more than 50 years after his passing, the calls for John Paul II's canonization began within days of his death: "Santo subito!" ("Sainthood Now!") was the shout of the crowds filling St. Peter's Square in Rome as world dignitaries, including U.S. President George W. Bush and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, paid their respects.

The son of an Italian farmer, Angelo Roncalli — the Cardinal of Venice, Italy, who took the name John XXIII at his election as supreme pontiff — was noted for his humor. During a visit from then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the pope elicited strong laughter from the American. When Eisenhower, a Presbyterian, asked Pope John how many people worked at the Vatican, the pope famously replied, "About half."

But John XXIII's greatest legacy was his call for a Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962 and concluded after his death. The meetings, the highest ecclesiastical assembly held in the Roman Catholic Church, were designed to "open the windows" of the church's hierarchy, and that's what happened. Changes in liturgy, in the way Rome saw other Christians as well as non-Christians, and other decisions reshaped the way Catholics acted in the world.

One young Vatican II participant, then the Bishop of Krakow, Poland, was Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 was elected to succeed the tragically brief 33-day papacy of John Paul I. Taking the name John Paul II, Wojtyla, athletic and with a stage actor's charisma, became a globetrotting pastor, drawing crowds in the millions wherever he landed, even late in life when Parkinson's disease ravaged him.

Although his era was later tarnished by revelations of sexual abuse by priests and others working for the church, John Paul II's legacy was his global evangelism, his magnetic appeal to young people, and his pastoral influence in helping countries overthrow communism. Surviving an assassination attempt on his life and later living with a debilitating illness, the Polish-born pontiff exemplified for many the ability to thrive under trying circumstances, as well as an ability to forgive even the man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to kill him.

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