Pope St. John XXIII: Joyful prophet of renewal

This is the seventh in a series looking at the Church’s 12 most recent popes and the marks they’ve made on the Church. The series is appearing monthly throughout 2018.

The story goes that when Cardinal Angelo Roncalli of Venice boarded the train to Rome for the conclave of cardinals to elect a successor to Pope Pius XII, he had his return ticket in his pocket. But it’s also said that Cardinal Roncalli had a pretty good notion he might leave as pope.

If both things are true, the ticket in his pocket can be taken as reflecting the man’s humility, while his realization that he might be chosen pope reflected his hard-headed realism. That same combination of humility and realism can be seen in retreat notes penned three years later by the man then known to the world as Pope John XXIII:

“When on 28 October 1958, the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church chose me to assume the supreme responsibility of ruling the universal flock of Jesus Christ, at 77 years of age, everyone was convinced that I would be a provisional and transitional pope.

“Yet here I am … with an immense program of work in front of me to be carried out before the eyes of the whole world, which is watching and waiting. As for me, I feel like St. Martin [of Tours], who ‘neither feared to die nor refused to live.’”

The centerpiece of his program was the Second Vatican Council. For 400 years, Catholic life remained largely as it was shaped in the 16th century by the Council of Trent. Then came John and his council, and with them a new era in the Church whose consequences still unfdold.

Road to the papacy

The man with whom it all began was born November 25, 1881, in Sotto il Monte, a village near Bergamo in northern Italy, third of 13 children in a family of peasant farmers. Following seminary studies in Bergamo, he received a scholarship to study in Rome and was ordained there in 1904.

Following ordination, his career included being secretary to the bishop of Bergamo, hospital orderly and chaplain to the Italian army in World War I, national director of the Propagation of the Faith organization in Italy and a Vatican diplomat stationed in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and France.

In Istanbul during the Second World War, he helped thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. After the war, he was assigned as papal nuncio to France to smooth over Church relations with the new government, which believed some bishops had collaborated with the previous German-occupied regime. In spite of his poor background, Pius XII personally selected Roncalli for this elite mission on account of his diplomatic skills.

In June 1953, Pius XII named him cardinal and Patriarch of Venice. Upon arrival there, he requested Venetians to be indulgent to a man “who wants simply to be your brother, loving, approachable, understanding.”

Cardinal Roncalli enjoyed his years in Venice and the opportunity that came with them to concentrate on being a pastor. His pastoral reputation preceded him into the conclave of October 1958, where the cardinals — looking for a change from the patrician style of Pius XII — entrusted the See of Peter to him. He took the name John and chose as his motto Obedientia et Pax (Obedience and Peace).

And indeed he was a change. “Whereas Pius XII was tall, thin, aloof, austere, and aristocratic,” historian James Hitchcock writes, “John was short, rotund and informal, given to making jokes at his own expense.” More than that, he “deliberately departed from papal protocol by the kinds of guests he received,” who included the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s atheist son-in-law. A natural ecumenist, he created a Vatican office for Christian unity and reached out in friendship to Jews.

Enter Vatican II

Along with the jokes and the kindliness, however, there was that immense program, unveiled barely three months after his election to a small group of startled cardinals. Its items: a synod for the diocese of Rome (a pope is, after all, Bishop of Rome), an updated Code of Canon Law and — the most immense undertaking of all — an ecumenical council.

The Roman synod took place a year later. The Code of Canon Law was completed in 1983 and promulgated by Pope John Paul II. As for the council, it opened on Oct. 11, 1962, and closed on Dec. 8, 1965, after four momentous sessions that touched aspects of Catholic life including liturgy, interreligious relations, religious freedom and the role of the laity.

Catholics still disagree on whether and why Vatican II was needed. Earlier councils generally met to deal with particular problems calling for urgent solutions. But in the middle years of the 20th century the Church looked stable and strong. What problem was Vatican II supposed to tackle?

It’s often said Pope John never really answered that question. But an answer — admittedly, a very general one — can be found in his speech to the 2,400 bishops who gathered in St. Peter’s for the council’s opening session on October 11, 1962. The problem may not be that he provided no answer, but that the answer he provided covers so much.

Much has been written about that remarkable opening address, with attention to its criticism of unnamed “prophets of doom” — presumably, certain cardinals of the Roman Curia — who saw the world getting steadily worse, and to John’s endorsement of aggiornamento — updating — in the manner of presenting doctrine.

But something more fundamental came first. “The great problem confronting the world after almost 2,000 years remains unchanged,” John declared. Here, then, was the problem Vatican II had to address. He continued:

“Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and of life. Men are either with him and his Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order and peace. Or else they are without him, or against him, and deliberately opposed to his Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars.” Here was John XXIII’s challenge to his council: aggiornamento, yes, along with ressourcement (return to sources), in order to preach Christ convincingly to a world desperately in need of him. How well Vatican II succeeded in meeting this challenge will be debated for years to come.

Pope of peace and justice

Two encyclicals also stand as milestones of John’s pontificate: Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”), published in May 1961, and Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), which appeared in April 1963.

Mater et Magistra, a document that irked some Catholic conservatives, is Pope John’s contribution to Catholic social doctrine. After syntheses of the social teaching of Leo XIII, Pius XI and Pius XII, it calls for workers’ participation in ownership of the companies they work for and declares that an economic system which exploits workers is “altogether unjust — no matter how much wealth it produces, or how justly and equitably such wealth is distributed.”

Mater et Magistra also speaks of the “universal destination” of goods that has been a central principle of Catholic social teaching since that time. Linking it to private ownership (which the encyclical endorses), Pope John states it like this: “In the plan of the creator all of this world’s goods are primarily intended for the worthy support of the entire human race.”

In October 1962, as Vatican II got underway, the world held its breath as the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Pope John is credited with helping to mediate that confrontation, while the events of those days undoubtedly helped shape Pacem in Terris.

Along with calling for the banning of nuclear weapons, the encyclical is notable for its enumeration of human rights and the obligations they give rise to. Noteworthy, too, is its call to establish a world authority to champion the universal common good. John writes:

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“The common good of individual states is something that cannot be determined without reference to the human person, and the same is true of the common good of all states taken together. Hence the public authority of the world community must likewise have as its special aim the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion of the rights of the human person. ... The special function of this universal authority must be to evaluate and find a solution to economic, social, political and cultural problems which affect the universal common good.”

He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in September 1962 and died June 3, 1963. Pope Francis canonized him, along with Pope John Paul II, on April 27, 2014. Attached to his will was a note conveying this final message: “It is with a joyful heart that I renew wholly and fervently the profession of my Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.