Josephine Robinson hails Pope John XXIII on the 50th anniversary of his election
Angelo Roncalli, Blessed Pope John XXIII, is sometimes seen as a kind of ecclesial Father Christmas, a lovable bringer of gifts, later almost forgotten.
It is true that he was an eminently good man of remarkable simplicity. In him, grace and nature appeared to coalesce. He said of himself, when he introduced himself to the people of Venice as their Patriarch: "I want to talk to you with the greatest frankness... Things have been written about me that greatly exaggerate my Merits. I... have an inclination to love people. It stops me doing harm to anyone; it encourages me to do good to all.He was deeply rooted in the village where he grew up and his farming family. who were always struggling with the vagaries of weather and markets, were rich only in their religious faith. As a priest, he brought his ability to love to the life of a diplomat, a job which he accepted under obedience. His coat of arms reads: "Obedience and Peace". He longed to be a parish priest. "I never hear confessions," he once lamented. When Pius xi' died in 1958 Cardinal Roncalli left Venice for the Conclave. "Pius is in paradise," he remarked, He told his family later that he had said to himself "Angelo, they wouldn't, would they? But they did," and he was elected pope at the llth ballot. He prayed: "Have mercy on me Lord, in thy greaat mercy."
Pius XII was elected in 1939 and much had happened in the world and the Church in the mostly terrible years since. The Catholicity of the Church took on a new meaning. Italians no longer dominated the electoral college. if the cardinals thought that they were electing a caretaker pope, who would do little, they were wrong.
Pope John XXIII had interiorised in prayer every bit of his life's experience. He knew the difficulties of the poor. As a young priest, he bad worked with his bishop in Bergamo, not only to relieve the poor. but to mitigate the causes of their sufferings where possible through social action, which involved not only bureaucrats but their fellow parishioners. He had been conscripted as a soldier, and then as chaplain, during the First World War. He knew the difficulties of Bulgaria. Turkey and post-war France, where he was the Pope's representative. He accepted humanity at large as a concern for the Church. And he called the Vatican Council.
There had been interest in the idea of a council before. Many bishops felt that they were hampered in their efforts at spreading the faith, by a perceived rigidity in the Church's structures and thinking, which reflected another age. There had also been lively theological reflection in some areas of the Church and a wider study of scriptural scholarship outside the Catholic tradition, autho
rised by Pius XII. The papacy had greater freedom. The moral stature of the Vicar of St Peter was more clearly visible to the world, unencumbered by papal states. Pius XII had considered the idea of a council, but rejected it. Pope John now judged that the time was ripe.
What was to be the point of the Council? It was to be pastoral, not doctrinal. Every bishop was encouraged to suggest how the faith could be better understood and lived in the mid-20th century. The word aggiornamento, "bringing up to today", is always associated with the Council. but Pope John had first used it publicly when he was Patriarch in Venice. It did not mean that the faith itself was to be adapted to the contemporary world, but that new ideas should be studied and the expression of ancient truths should be couched in ways that could be more easily understood. He hoped, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to reach beyond the circle of the faithful, to other Christians (who also believed in Christ's redemptive act) and to people at large, asking only their goodwill. He wanted every bishop to consider bow the Church's mission could be better accomplished. He said he wanted to reveal the Church as she should be.
By the time the Council convened, the Pope himself was ill. Nevertheless he opened the proceedings with a speech that was full of optimism. Indeed he almost joked that some were too gloomy about the state of the Church and world around her. Yet he had said to his secretary that his contribution to the Council would be suffering. Shortly before his death, he published his greatest encyclical, Pacem in Terris. In it, he addresses the longing for peace, for trust between nations and communities. for a sort of universal acceptance of the human condition, through which the common good might be achieved.
John XXIII loved the Church. He had wanted to be a priest since he was a small boy. On the day of his ordination as priest he visited, alone, all his favourite churches in Rome, praying to God and to his favourite saints. He loved ecclesiastical history and had the greatest affection and admiration for St Charles Borromeo. The saint had worked, in the 16th century, to make the faith an illumination to everyone in his diocese, to the greater glory of God. He had a high ideal of priesthood. Just before the Council opened he spoke to the priests of Rome, urging them to behave at all times in ways that revealed their priesthood to others, including even their clothes. He seems to have had no wish that the liturgy should be celebrated in the vernacular. He ordered that all lectures in the colleges in Rome should be given in Latin — to the dismay of at least some 8nglish students. He wanted to bring God's Word to all, even if they followed strange gods or had no religion. He loved to say: "I am Joseph, your brother." He wanted to welcome them because all men share the humanity created by God. This was, if not a new perception, a new direction for the Church. It is now so universally accepted that it is easy to forget how innovative his thinking was.
Some Catholics see him almost as a traitor because he turned the Church outward to embrace the world. Other Catholics see him as the Pope who liberated the Church so that she could follow the beliefs of secular society, in the interests of solidarity with all men. Yet his whole impulse was to bring people to God, through the institution that Christ founded, the Catholic Church.
How would he have felt about the Novus Ordo and the use of the vernacular? My guess is that he would have embraced both, for the good of the Church, while demanding at all times the deepest reverence and fidelity to Christ's teaching. He would surely have been distraught by the widespread flight of priests and religious from their vows and lay people from the Mass and the sacraments. He was both radical and conservative and above all open to the Holy Spirit.
Fifty years after the Council, the turmoil is subsiding. Now it is clear that the teachings of the Church can be developed but not changed. Now that we are beginning to know the imperative of fidelity, reverence and meditative prayer, and of reaching out to all mankind created by God, the vision of Good Pope John will become clear. He was both radical and conservative and above all open to the Holy Spirit.
Josephine Robinson is the author of John XXIII: The Universal Parish Priest (Catholic Truth Society, 2007)