On this May 18th, as we celebrate the first Pontiff with the name of the beloved disciple – and more on him in a moment – for we also celebrate what would have been Pope Saint John Paul II’s 100th birthday, which would be old even for the oldest of Popes. Benedict, the XVI, who holds the controversial title of Pope Emeritus – the first Pope ever to do so, but, then there have only been five or so that have retired from the Chair – well, he turned 93 on April 16th. But the oldest actual reigning Pontiff was Leo XIII, who held the Chair until he went to see Saint Peter at the venerable age of 93, making him the oldest Pope in history. I am sure John Paul his birthday in fine style is celebrating in fine style in heaven, even if in Poland, and other European cultures, they do not celebrate their birthdays so much as the days of their patron saints, which for Karol Wojtyla was November 4th, has namesake, Saint Charles Borromeo.
But I am sure that both Charles the Cardinal and John the Pope were in some ways guiding the life of the young Karol, knowing he was destined to take on the mantle of the papacy, and travel, pray and suffer, more than his eponymous predecessor, for the Church universal. Curiously, John Paul II’s would-be assassin was from Turkey, where is found Constantinople, now named Istanbul.
It is only in the breadth of eternity that we can truly discern the events not only of this world, but in each of our individual lives. What in the rather limited scale of secularity appears as ‘failure’ may in fact be our greatest success, which is why we honour martyrs like Pope John. Like John Paul II 1500 years after him, his ending seems tragic, but their equanimity in persecution, misunderstanding, even apparent futility, sickness and death, is their greatest triumph.
I had a dream once that I was climbing – or more like hiking – a mountain with the Pope who shares my name (and I had it first, I might add). Perhaps someday, in the new heavens and earth, that dream may come true, when we’re all at the perfect, vigorous age of 33, or thereabouts, that dream may come true. After all, there must be mountains in heaven.
In his company in heavenly bliss is the Pope we celebrate today, John I (+526). One wonders why it took five centuries for a Pope to be chosen with this very biblical and apostolic name. Then again, up until the time of Pope John, those elected kept their baptismal names, and it was not until 533, when a certain Mercurius was elected, who thought it unfitting that he keep his pagan name as head of the Catholic Church, so he took the name of his predecessor, John II.
But then the names of the Evangelists, nor even the Apostles have never popular with Popes. There has never been a Pope Matthew, Luke nor even Andrew; there was one Pope Mark who reigned less than a year, and, of course, the original Pope Peter. The prophecies of the 11th century Irish monk Malachy, likely-largely-apocryphal, declare that the next Pope to choose the name ‘Peter’ will be the last Pope at the end of the world. But this may be figurative; or the prophecy more likely spurious. One must keep one’s wits about one.
Pope John was already frail when elected, was sent by the King Theodoric to Emperor Justin at Constantinople, to seek better treatment for the Arians, a heresy that claimed was not really, fully God, to which Theodoric, along with most of his barbarian compatriots, heartily subscribed. It was, I suppose, easier to grasp than the complexity of the dual natures of Christ (heresies of which caused so much strife in Byzantium), and His ontological relational status within the Trinity (ditto). Much more simple to make Him (or, for them, him) a more pliable creature, to whom they need not fully submit. After all, only God has full authority, and if Christ is not God, well then, what power has Christ, really? Or, for that matter, His vicar, the Pope?
Pope John made the arduous 1300-mile journey to Constantinople – and it was arduous in those days, over dry dusty roads, mountains, vales and stormy seas – with a large and venerable retinue. Emperor Justin received the Pope warmly, and the delegation from the West got more or less what Theodoric wanted – almost – for Justin did not grant the concession that those clerics who converted from Arianism to Catholicism would be ‘restored’, that is, keep their hierarchical positions, for their former heresy precluded them, as possibly forming an undermining ‘fifth column’ – think, ‘deep state’ – in the Church, and one wonders if things have changed all that much. They were rather insistent upon clear and solid orthodoxy in those days, and one thinks we should perhaps be more so today.
So upon the Pope’s return, Theodoric accused him of conspiring with the emperor, and in a fury had him thrown into a dank prison in the capital of Ravenna, where he, already old and frail, died on this day in 526 of neglect and ill-treatment, hailed as a martyr for the truth.
We all must witness to that same truth in our own way, as God so wills.
Be not afraid, for I am with you…to the end.