Pope John XXIII Lived Out in His Life What Vatican II Tried to Condense Into Words

Remembering the Good Pope

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By Michael Novak

In conjunction with the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, ZENIT is reprinting from Corriere della Sera series of three articles by Michael Novak, who was present at the Second Session of the Second Vatican Council, and has long studied both Popes.

Novak here brings back to life the sermon honoring Pope John XXIII preached by the great Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens of Belgium before all 2,700 bishops assembled in Saint Peter’s Basilica for the opening of the Second Session of Vatican II. This sermon presents the life of Pope John XXIII as the Fathers of the Council – and the watching world – knew him.

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What unites Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II – and makes their joint canonization this month so especially fitting – is their joint role in launching and in completing the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965). The calling of that Council issued from the heart of “the Good Pope John.” Some three decades later, its rescue from trivialization fell to John Paul II.

Without Pope John XXIII, there could have been no Council – without his sweet, temperate, and courageous spirit, there could have been no peace in the Church in which to shelter it.

During the years following the Council, perhaps no bishop in the world used the impulses and graces of Vatican II to such immense effect as John Paul II of Krakow, Poland. In the spirit of the Council he mobilized his nation, believers and unbelievers alike, to prepare them for their important role in bringing down the Iron Curtain of Repression, which had too long divided contemporary civilization.

John Paul II – in his very name, he linked himself to the two great popes of the Council, John and Paul. His aim was to push out into history the power and graces of their Council, to change the face of the world, and to deepen the faith, courage, and understanding of the Catholic people in every region on earth. John Paul II rooted the Council deep in history, spiritually and politically.

It was the Council that united them, these two great saints.

First, as God did, let us begin with John XXIII.

* * *

Pope John XXIII lived out in his life what the Second Vatican Council is trying to condense into words. In a pontiticate of five brief years, Pope John made Christian unity seem one day possible. He spoke to those who believe in God and those who do not believe in God and they all understood. Pope John was the focal point of the Roman Catholic Church, and through him, as through a prism, God’s pursuit of man touched and burnt millions of hearts around the world. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, Pope John was what the Church wishes to be. He showed other bishops what their office might be like. He showed priests how they might speak and be heard by those whom they gave their lives to serve. He showed people how close they might be to their shepherds. Pope John lived the Gospels. It is much harder to write a series of decrees which will guide other bishops, priests, and people in trying to live those Gospels. For many, Pope John will always speak louder than the Council.

The presence of Pope John was felt among the Council Fathers throughout the second session. On November 21, for example, the first speaker to take the floor, Bishop Jaime Flores Martin, of Barbastro, Spain, began his favorable comment on the schema for the unity of Christians by saying, “This schema leads us into the path of ecumenism which was so dear to Pope John XXIII.” On October 28, one of the most important days of the Council, on one of the rare occasions in which Pope Paul entered into the Council chamber, Cardinal Suenens was called upon to invoke the memory of Pope John in a way so explicit and at such great length that he can only have wished to make the presence of Pope john unforgettably active in the Council. We shall have to defer until later a description of the dramatic circumstances in which Cardinal Suenens gave his discourse, and its effect upon the Council. But here we can report some of Cardinal Suenens’ words in order to understand how, in one way at least, the figure of Pope John was ever present to the Council Fathers.

Climbing into the pulpit of St. Peter’s, in the presence of Pope Paul VI, the patriarchs, cardinals, archbishops, and bishops of the world, together with a few hundred laymen, the Cardinal preached the following sermon:

When he was elected, John XXIII might have seemed to be a “transitional pope.” He was indeed transitional, but not in the way expected nor in the ordinary sense of the word. History will surely judge that he opened a new era for the Church and that he laid the foundations for the transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century.

But it is not our purpose to assess the full significance of the pontificate that has just ended; that would be rash and premature. What we should like to do in this solemn gathering, called at the wish of Pope Paul VI now gloriously reigning, is simply to try to represent before us for a few moments the figure of john XXIII, in a collective act of filial piety and deeply-felt gratitude.

Each one of the Council Fathers keeps in his heart the vivid remembrance of our last meeting with him, here in this very place, close to the tomb of Peter. Each one, as he listened, asked himself: “Is this a final good-bye? Will the father, talking to us now, ever see his children again?” We realized that we were listening to a kind of Discourse at the Last Supper. . . .

The television, the radio, and the press brought his death so close to us that it was like a death in the family. Never has the whole world taken part at such close quarters in the poignant stages of a mortal sickness. Never has it shown such unanimity of feeling. “The death of the saints,” says Holy Scripture, “is precious in the sight of God.” The death of John XXIII was precious also in the sight of the world. The Pope transformed it into a final proclamation of faith and hope; he made it something like the celebration of an Easter liturgy.

A few weeks before his great leave-taking, the Supreme Pontiff had said in the course of an audience: “Every day is a good day to he born, and every day is a good day to die. I know in whom I have believed.” He went to meet his end with the serenity of a child going home, knowing that its father is waiting there with open arms. What could be simpler?

When he heard the members of his household sobbing round his bed, he protested: “Don’t cry, this is a time of joy.” When the end drew near, he asked to be “left alone with the Lord” to recollect himself. But some echoes of his prayer could be heard when he recovered consciousness. He could be heard repeating the words of the Master: “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” words which in such a moment took on their fullest meaning. And then his lips formed this last, barely audible, heartfelt cry, full of filial love for the Blessed Virgin: “My Mother, my hope.” And it was the end. . . .

John XXIII has left us.

Yet we dare to believe that he is more than ever present in our midst. The dead do not cease to live, but live more fully. In the mystic reality of the Communion of Saints they act more penetratingly and intimately and with greater power. . . .

We must now try to describe the figure of the Pope, whose memory is forever fixed in the heart of every one of us. . . .

If one had to express it all in one word, it seems to me that one could say that John XXIII was a man surprisingly natural and at the same time supernatural. Nature and grace produced in him a living unity filled with charm and surprises.

Everything about him sprang from a single source. In a completely natural way he was supernatural. He was natural with such a supernatural spirit that no one detected a distinction between the two.

Filling his lungs, as it were, he breathed the faith just as he breathed physical and moral health.

“He lived in the presence of God,” one wrote, “with the simplicity of one who takes a walk through the streets of his native town.”

He lived with both feet on the ground, and with vibrant sympathy he was interested in the everyday concerns of people. He knew how to stop at the side of a road to talk with ordinary people, to listen to a child, to console an invalid. He was concerned with the construction of an airport and he prayed for the astronauts. . . .

John’s spontaneous, forthright, ever-alert goodness was like a ray of sunshine which dispels the fog, which melts the ice, which filters its way through without even being noticed, as though it were its right. Such a ray of sunshine creates optimism along its path, spreads happiness with its unexpected appearance, and makes light of all obstacles.

It is thus that John XXIII appeared to the world, not as the sun of the tropics, which blinds one with the intensity of its brilliance, but rather as the humble, familiar, everyday sun which is simply there in its place, always true to itself even though it may be momentarily veiled by a cloud, a sun which one hardly notices, so certain is its presence.

John XXIII was not so naive as to believe that goodness would solve all problems, but he knew that it would open hearts to dialogue, to understanding, and to mutual respect. He had confidence in the power of the charity of Christ burning in a human heart. . . .

Let us listen to him as he introduces himself to his newly acquired subjects, the faithful of the Patriarchate of Venice:

“I wish,” he told them, “to speak to you with the utmost frankness. You have waited impatiently for me; people have told you about me and written you accounts that far surpass my merits. I introduce myself as I really am. Like every other person who lives here on earth, I come from a definite family and place. Thank God, I enjoy bodily health and a little good sense which allows me to see matters quickly and clearly. Ever ready to love people, I stand by the law of the Gospel, a respecter of my own rights and of those of others, a fact that prevents me from doing harm to anybody and which encourages me to do good to all.

“I come of humble stock. I was raised in the kind of poverty which is confining but beneficial, which demands little, but which guarantees the development of the noblest and greatest virtues and which prepares one for the steep ascent of the mountain of life. Providence drew me out of my native village and made me traverse the roads of the world in the East and in the West. The same Providence made me embrace men who were different both by religion and by ideology. God made me face acute and threatening social problems, in the presence of which I kept a calm and balanced judgment and imagination in order to evaluate matters accurately, ever preoccupied, out of my respect for Catholic doctrinal and moral principles, not with what separates people and provokes conflicts, but rather with what unites men.” . . .

No one was surprised to read in his personal diary reflections such as the following:

“This year’s celebrations for my priestly jubilee have come to an end. I have allowed them to be held here at Sofia and at Sotto il Monte. What an embarrassment for me! Countless priests already dead or still living after twenty-five years of priesthood have accomplished wonders in the apostolate and in the sanctification of souls. And I, what have I done? My Jesus, mercy! But, while I humble myself for the little or nothing that I have achieved up to now, I raise my eyes toward the future. There still remains light in front of me; there still remains the hope of doing some good. Therefore, I take up again my staff, which from now on will be the staff of old age, and I go forward to meet whatever the Lord wishes for me” (Sofia, October 30, 1929). . . .

“The Vicar of Christ? Ah! I am not worthy of this title, I, the poor son of Baptist and Mary Ann Roncalli, two good Christians, to be sure, but so modest and so humble” (August 15, 1961).

If we shift our gaze from the man to the work he accomplished, his life appears as a threefold grace: a grace for the faithful of the Catholic Church; a grace for all Christians; a grace for all men of good will.

His life was a grace for the faithful, above all because of the Council he convoked; this was the culmination of his pastoral activity.

John XXIII wanted this Council: he rightly said this desire was an answer to an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, inviting him to assemble in Rome all the bishops of the world.

At the opening of the Council he made a calm declaration of “his complete disagreement with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.” “We have no reason to be afraid,” he added; “fear comes only from a lack of faith.”

He obeyed God’s call, peacefully and without knowing exactly how all of this was to be worked out. “When it comes to a council,” he once said smilingly, “we are all novices, The Holy Spirit will be present when the bishops assemble; we’ll see.”

Indeed, for him, the Council was not first of all a meeting of the bishops with the Pope, a horizontal coming together. It was first and above all a collective gathering of the whole Episcopal College with the Holy Spirit, a vertical coming together, an entire openness to an immense outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a kind of new Pentecost. . . .

His life was a grace for all Christians.

For to him we owe a new atmosphere, a new climate, which enables us together, as brothers, to meet the obstacles which remain to be overcome on the path to a full and visible unity. This climate we owe to his charity and to his sincerity.

To his charity, which opened the hearts of men to dialogue, to a predisposition to judge favorably, to understanding. Better than anyone else, John XXIII knew that the search for Christian unity does not proceed along the path of diplomatic negotiations, but looks rather to the very depths of men’s spiritual lives.

We grow in closeness, one with another, in his judgment, according to the very measure each one allows himself to be taken over by the life and charity of Christ. As we become more and more one with Him, we cannot but grow in closeness to our brothers. Every effort for union, by the very fact that it is an act of charity, has in itself unitive value. . . .

Is it not this moving sincerity which struck the observers during the audience he had with them the day after the Council opened?

“As for you,” he told them, “read my heart: you will perhaps learn more there than from my words. How will I forget the ten years spent in Sofia and the other ten in Istanbul and Athens? . . . I often met Christians belonging to various denominations. . . . We did not debate; we spoke; and though we did not discuss, we loved each other. Your presence here, which we cherish, and the emotion which fills my priestly heart . . . urge me to confide to you how my heart burns with a desire to work and to suffer for the coming of that hour when Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper will be realized for all men.”

His life was a grace for the world.

John XXIII was the Pope of dialogue, and this has special reference to the men of our times.

It is not easy to make the world of today hear the voice of the Church. It is drowned by too much noise; there is too much static and interference in the air for the message to get through.

In spite of these obstacles, john XXIII managed to make himself heard: he broke through the sound barrier.

The words of John awakened a response.

Men recognized his voice, a voice speaking to them of God, but also of human brotherhood, of the re-establishment of social justice, of a peace to be established throughout the whole world.

They heard a challenge addressed to their better selves, and they raised their eyes toward this man whose goodness made them think of God. For men, whether they know or not, are always in search of God, and it is the reflection of God that they sought in the countenance of this old man who loved them with the very love of Christ.

And this is why they wept for him as children for their father, pressing around him to receive his blessing.

And the poor wept for him; they knew he was one of them and that he was dying poor like them, thanking Cod for the poverty that for him had been such a grace.

And the prisoners wept for him: he had visited them and encouraged them with his presence. Who does not remember that visit to the prison of Rome? Among the prisoners were two murderers. After having heard the Holy Father, one of them approached and said: “These words of hope that you have just spoken, do they also apply to me, such a great sinner?” The Pope’s only answer was to open his arms and clasp him to his heart.

This prisoner is surely a sort of symbol of the whole of mankind, so close to the heart of John XXIII.

Now that his pontificate has come to an end, how can we without deep emotion reread the words he spoke in 1934 as he was leaving Bulgaria. We recognize john XXIII in this farewell message, a message that has prophetic value.

“Oh my brothers,” he said, “do not forget me, who, come what may, will remain always the fervent friend of Bulgaria.

“According to an old tradition of Catholic Ireland, on Christmas Eve each home puts a lighted candle in the window to show Saint Joseph and the Blessed Mother, searching for a place to stay, that inside there is a family waiting to receive them. Wherever I may be, even at the ends of the earth, any Bulgarian away from his native land passing by my house will find in the window the lighted candle. If he knocks, the door will be opened, whether he be Catholic or Orthodox. A brother from Bulgaria, this will be title enough. He will be welcome and will find in my house the warmest and the most affectionate hospitality.”

This invitation has gone far beyond the borders of Bulgaria; John XXIII addressed it to all men of good will, irrespective of national frontiers.

He will be for history the Pope of Welcome and of Hope. This is the reason his gentle and holy memory will remain in benediction in the centuries to come.

At his departure, he left men closer to God, and the world a better place for men to live.

* * *

Pope John was present to the Council Fathers not only in Cardinal Suenens’ speech. He was also present in the memories and hearts and inspirations of many of the Council Fathers and many of the periti (theological experts) who accompanied them. He showed that a man, a priest, a pope, could live in the twentieth century and, after all the ambiguities and trappings of history, speak to men of Christ in the accents of Christ, in ways which men could take to be the ways of Christ. Simple, humble, good, for many years dismissed as “a clown,” temporizing, uncourageous; and then suddenly courageous and active, Pope John did not start the modern Christian renaissance; he was not the originator of leading ideas or leading movements; he had not, before he became Pope, distinguished himself for his contributions to those movements. But Pope John did something more important than any movement or any formulations of an idea or any support for a program. Pope John lived his special 1ife.

Of course, there are as many ways of being oneself as there are men. Pope John was not always, in the eyes of men, what he appeared to be in the end. He understood very well the wisdom of compromise. “There are some souls,” he wrote in Pacem in Terris, “particularly endowed with generosity, who, in finding situations where the requirements of justice are not satisfied in full, feel enkindled with the desire to change the state of things, as if they wished to have recourse to something like a revolution. It must be borne in mind that to proceed gradually is the law of life in all its expressions. Therefore, in human institutions, too, it is not possible to renovate them for the better, except by working from within them, gradually.” His own path, previous to his becoming Pope, was strewn with gradual measures. The Synod of Rome, over which he presided in 1959, did not to any hopeful degree “open the windows” which the Council was to open. He allowed the woefully anachronistic and impracticable constitution Veterum Sapientiae, ordering that classes be taught in Latin in all seminaries, to appear over his name. He allowed the Holy Office to issue a monitum – though a mild one – against the works of Teilhard de Chardin. When the Council Fathers elected very few members of the Curia to the conciliar commissions, he salved the pride of the Curia by naming many of their members among the nine appointments for each commission he reserved to himself, and by naming a curial cardinal to head every commission. He allowed a curial man to be Secretary General of the Council. Overcoming countless obstacles, Pope John managed to get his Council together; he managed to open the Church as Christ was open – not asking the world to conform first, but entering the world as it is. He kept his eyes fixed on the essentials, and understood how to realize his dreams by gradual methods. On the other hand, he did not sell his soul in a thousand minor compromises.

There are many manners of expressing truth. When God wished to reveal to men the secret of their own lives and the nature of His Own life, He spoke a Word; but that Word was not a book or a school of thought but a life, the life of His Own Son. Thus Pope John, like the Word he served, told us about the mystery of our times and our own destiny, not with a book or with a school of thought, but with a life. Life comes before lessons; lessons are only for life.

Pope John’s slow, lingering death burnt his memory into the minds of nearly all men now living. For the first time in the history of humankind, the whole race was caught up in the death agony of one of their number, and were conscious of him as a great religious man, a follower of Christ, who was offering his suffering for them: for the sake of the Council and for peace. “Any day is a good day to die,” he had said. “My bags are packed.” Every quarter hour, in the United States, the news bulletins followed this man’s progress toward death. The world was united in sorrow, sympathy, and love. Men were learning how it is good to die, and to share a good man’s death together.