29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Mt 22:15-21) “Saintly Pontiffs and Caesar” PDF Version
Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (2017): Mt 22:15-21
On July 5th, 2013, Pope Francis canonized two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, as saints of the Universal Catholic Church. Rarely had two popes lived as contemporaries of one another and were jointly raised to the altars of public veneration by the People of God. We now celebrate the feast day of St John XXIII on October 11th and St John Paul II on October 22nd (that is today).
The canonization of these remarkable successors of St Peter marked what some might call a Golden Age of papal history, one that extends back to the reign of Blessed Pius IX the mid 19th century. It is a 160 year period that has seen numerous popes be declared as venerable, blessed and saints of our Church. These are the three final steps that someone takes to be official recognized as a saint of God. In addition to Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, the following popes are also revered for their lives of courageous holiness:
Blessed Pius IX (1792-1878) is remembered for giving the Church the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and of Papal Infallibility, and for courageously leading the Church during a time of political upheaval in Italy and throughout Europe.
St Pius X (1835-1914) is renowned for his efforts to reform liturgical music during the Holy Mass, for allowing children to receive their First Holy Communion around the age of 7 and for defending the integrity of the Catholic faith against heretical teachings that were becoming widespread, even among renowned Catholic theologians.
Venerable Pius XII (1876-1953) lead the Catholic Church during the horrors of World War II, and was the Pope who solemnly declared the dogma of Mary’s bodily Assumption into Heaven.
Finally, Blessed Paul VI (1897-1978) was given the monumental and difficult task of implementing the documents of the Second Vatican Council and for guiding the Church during the Cold War and widespread cultural and political upheaval around the world.
In addition, the other popes of the past 160 years, being Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and the Servant of God John Paul I, alongside Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and our current pontiff Francis, also lived or are currently living lives of marked holiness and courage in guiding the Catholic Church in the ways of sanctity and service.
A common quality among each of these men was their capacity to live the wisdom of Christ in dealing with the rulers of this world. Each of them were faced with moments when the needed to know if one was to render onto Caesar what was Caesar’s, in so far as they worked alongside world leaders for the betterment of humanity or those times they were to render unto God that which was God’s, and in doing so put themselves in opposition to the powers and principalities of this world.
Take for example the efforts St John XXIII made during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. With the threat of nuclear war at an all time high, St John XXIII implored both the United States and the Soviet Powers to put the pursuit of peace before all else, putting aside their weapons of atomic death and preventing another killing field to emerge during the 20th century. We know that this Saintly Pope’s cry for peace was heard as he patiently dialogued with the duelling powers of that time to diffuse tensions and protect life.
Or consider the ways in which St. John Paul II prevented a full blown war in 1978 between the two Catholic nations of Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Channel. When shots were about to be fired, St John Paul II intervened and used both his moral authority and shepherding heart to start a dialogue of peace and prevent another war to emerge.
In both of these examples, the Popes sought to dialogue with world powers, respecting their autonomy and authority, but courageously compelling them to put aside their intentions for war and dominance to allow peace and public safety to prevail. To Caesar was given the freedom to choose to govern as a nation saw fit but with the Popes’ offering a moral imperative to put aside destructive ambitions for the common good of humanity.
Yet there have also been times when the Popes knew they must oppose the will and actions of the Caesars’ of their day to render onto God what was His due and what was for the salvation of humanity.
Consider for example the ways in which Venerable Pius XII sought to save the Jewish People during WWII. Historian Rabbi David Dalin claims that as many at 860,000 Jewish men, women and children were saved from the Holocaust by the actions of Venerable Pius XII. This was accomplished through ordering parish priests to make fake baptismal certificates for Jewish people to save them from deportation, ordering monks and nuns to hide Jewish people in monasteries and convents and by opening Castle Gondolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, as a refugee centre of any Jewish person who could escape there, his own bedroom being used as a delivery room that allowed numerous Jewish children to be saved from the hellish fires of the Shoah.
Pius XII refused to abide by the orders of Hitler to exterminate the Jewish people and made courageous efforts to save the Chosen People, rendering onto God his own love and concern for the Jewish people.
Or consider the courageous witness of Blessed Paul VI during the late 1960’s. Theologians, world media outlets and world leaders were exerting tremendous pressure on the Pope to radically change the Church’s teachings in regards to sexual morality and to make the use of artificial contraceptives permissible for Catholics. Many presumed the Pope would officially make these changes as a sign of the Church’s willingness to embrace the ethos of the modern age and it was with great shock and scorn that they saw Paul VI uphold the venerable and unchangeable teachings of the Catholic Church in regards to these contentious topics.
Ridiculed and disobeyed by many Bishops and Priests and Catholic world leaders, Paul VI stood his ground and refused to compromise the truth that had been given to him by Christ and the Apostles. He rendered unto God the sacrifice of his public image to uphold the truth that was especially entrusted to him to safeguard and teach.
The Popes of the past two centuries offer us a courageous witness to our own call to render onto Caesar and God what are proper to each. We are called to be good citizens, to support our political leaders, to be involved in the benefits of a democratic society and work for the common good of our nations. But we are also called to voice our opposition and disapproval when our leaders violate the truth and wisdom that comes from God and seek to create a society that is void of God’s presence and passes off evil as good.
Let us ask the saintly Popes of old to intercede on our behalf, knowing when to render unto Caesar what is his or her due and to render unto God all that is expected of us as disciples of Jesus Christ.