WORKS about Pope John have deluged the bookmarket from the early days of his pontificate. Almost simultaneously in recent weeks two new books have appeared on either side of the Atlantic. They are quite dissimilar and yet mutually so complementary. One is An invitation to Hope Pope John XXIII, in which Mgr. John Gregory Clancy arranges and translates Pope John's statements into English in such a form as to produce a charming and inspiring monologue.
We hear the Pope telling us of his own life and longings as a father would do to his children. This delightful collection. published by Simon & Schuster, New York. will he available soon in a British edition. The other book is Pope John by Meriol Trevor, that masterly Catholic writer. who is enriching our libraries with works of the highest historic value.
"Pope John" is not the translation of a biography from the Italian or the French, which even in the best Eng . lish rendering often requires a good deal of interpretation. It is a life written originally in English. by an English writer, for the English speak ing public. It goes straight to the point, cutting down on all sentimentality, which has often conveyed a distorted image of that great Pontiff, and weighs each fact against historic evidence.
The author did not content herself with what other biographers say about Pope John. She made it her business to go to places where he had lived and worked, and to talk to people for whom he had been a living personal experience.
She was thus able to collect much unpublished material of both ecclesiastical and political interest. Together with many sidelights on ecclesiastical organization and workings, both pastoral and diplomatic, she gives us an account of facts which for the first time find due place in a biography of Pope John. Such are his contribution to the easing of the United States-Soviet tension caused by the Cuba crisis which threatened to plunge the whole world in war; the promotion of friendly relations between East and West; and the full story of Archbishop Slipyj's release from a Soviet prison.
Miss Trevor's book gives us a deep insight into Pope John's formative years, from the very green age of his adolescence to the period of his fullest maturity. He grows in our sight from the restricted dimensions of an ordinary provincial seminarian to the colossal stature of a saintly Pope, who stands out as one of the greatest Pontiffs of all times.
The 'simplicity of his spirituality contrasts in a refreshing way with the overwhelming complexities of the lofty charges which were gradually entrusted to him. We can witness the development of this spiritual giant, as his unfailing confidence, warmth and width of vision are nourished by a constant heart-searching and self-imposed disCipline, and by his unquenchable thirst for learning.
Pope John's good nature radiates from this spon taneous and transparent biography, which supplies us with a remarkable wealth of vivid details about a Pope who all his life was conscious of his human frailties and fought them unrelentingly, in an effort to attain perfection in thought and action. The result of this struggle was a joyful victory over his less better self and an immense blessing for the Church and the world. As we become more intimately acquainted with the real Pope John, we are relieved to see our own weaknesses overcome in him by his ceaseless struggle to master the built-in weaknesses of his soul and body.
Of special interest is Miss Trevor's outline of those exciting years of Church and world history which filled Pope John's life-span. It would be impossible to appreciate that great man's thought and action without extensive reference to the historic setting in which he lived and worked. Those years witnessed endless quarrels between Church and State, the formation of a Catholic political and social conscience appropriate to the new needs of the times, the beginnings of communism as a political force, the modernist upheaval and anti-modernist reaction. the agony of two world wars. the crushing rise and inglorious fall of Fascism and Nazism. the forging of new ideas and techniques aimed at reconciling the Church and the world.
This is the tempestuous context in which the humble son of a Bergamask farming family carried heavy responsibilities in the different stages of his ecclesiastical advancement and handled them so expertly and discreetly that he attracted hardly any publicity. But when he was called to the supreme leadership of the Church, the lamp was put on a stand, and all were able to see the light.
The greatest of Pope John's achievements was undoubtedly the convocation of the ecumenical council. The idea had been maturing in the mind. of all the Popes of his lifetime, but it took a man such as himself to translate that idea into reality. The calling of the council did not come to him as a sudden inspiration, as is wrongly believed. The idea was born in the early years of his priestly life, ever since he began to explore the works and the spirit of St. Charles Borromeo, Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius IV. and spiritual head of the Council of Trent.
St. Charles, who was one of the greatest reformers of the Church. exhorted the Tridentine Fathers: " T h e Council will reform our per sons as well as our affairs." Pope John made these words his own. It was not by mere coincidence that he chose the 4th November, feast of St. Charles Borromeo, as his Coronation Day.
Though the ecumenical council was primarily intended as a call to personal and institutional ref or m within the Catholic Church, Pope John never concealed that his main purpose and driving motive was that it should become a call to Christian unity. He keenly expressed this urge when he said: "We do not wish to know who is right and who is wrong. The responsibility varies from time to time. We simply say: 'let us unite.' We have had enough of arguments. We have the same gospel. the same Saviour and the same vocation as Christians and as men."
The response of the Christian world to this appeal marked the beginning of that great ecumenical revival in which all men of goodwill are now seriously involved.
Shortly after Pope John's election, a. biography appeared in Italian, spiced with a series of unauthentic anecdotes and presuming to be a faithful account of his multifold personality and achievements. The Pope's reaction was one of amused astonishment: "How can anyone write a book about me without having ever known me personally? And why should one want to write about me at all?" Many other biographies followed and his reaction was always the same. He did not find himself reflected in them. He would throw up his hands and cry out resignedly: "Well, let them have me as they wish!"
Here at long last is a standard biography in which Pope John would sec himself reflected The book does not pretend to be a complete picture; but it certainly is a true and balanced one, built on sound history. and highly readable. It is handsomely produced by Macmillan, London, and the rare collection of photographs it contains makes it even more attractive.
The enthusiastic reception it is receiving in the Englishspeaking world is a sign both of its intrinsic value and of the irresistible charm which Pope John's memory exercises on people within and without the Catholic fold.